Russians stay in Georgia and worry the West

TBILISI Mon Aug 18, 2008 6:44pm EDT

1 of 22. Russian soldiers travel on top of an armoured vehicles on a road near the Georgian town of Gori August 18, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

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TBILISI (Reuters) - Russian troops and tanks were still deployed in several areas of Georgia on Tuesday, apparently defying pressure from the West to withdraw quickly.

Armed Georgian policemen and Russian soldiers guarded separate checkpoints only a few hundred meters apart in the village of Igoeti in central Georgia, about 45 km (28 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Russia's Defense Ministry has said the army's withdrawal from Georgia has started, but on Monday a Reuters correspondent who traveled to the central town of Gori saw little evidence of a pullout from the area.

The conflict began 10 days ago when Georgian forces tried earlier this month to recapture South Ossetia, which broke free from Tbilisi in a war during the 1990s. Russia launched an overwhelming counterattack to support the separatists.

The Russian attack -- its biggest military deployment outside its borders since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union -- included air strikes on economic targets deep inside Georgia, forcing the Georgian army into retreat, and shocked the West.

The United States and France on Monday urged a speedy Russian withdrawal in line with a French-mediated ceasefire accord. This and other similar appeals have had no visible impact as Moscow has declined to set a pullout timetable.

A senior U.S. official said there were no signs yet that the Russian forces had begun to leave. Georgia said they were broadening their presence.

"I hope the world has woken up to what is going on. The Russians should get out of my country," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told reporters during a Tbilisi church service late on Monday. "The worst thing the world could do would be to compromise and show weakness."

NATO foreign ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss the crisis later on Tuesday.

A senior U.S. official said the United States would call on NATO members to consider suspending ministerial meetings with Moscow to press Russia to respect the peace deal on Georgia.

ROADBLOCKS SMASHED

On Monday a convoy of armored personnel carriers smashed through a Georgian police roadblock at a sidestreet leading off from the main road through Igoeti.

In the hills overlooking the road between Igoetia and Gori, Russian soldiers manned bunkers while camouflaged tanks and armored personnel carriers trained their cannon on vehicles passing below.

Georgia, a former Soviet state, is at the centre of a battle for influence between Russia and the West in the Caucasus, which hosts a pipeline pumping oil to Europe from Asia. It has angered Moscow by pushing to join NATO.

Some analysts think Russia may drag its feet in pulling out its troops to keep economic and social pressure on Saakashvili and on his government, which they want to dislodge.

"The Russians will invent all kinds of excuses, pretexts not to pull back their troops," Alexander Rondeli of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies said.

"They will rename themselves peacekeepers, maintain their positions in the security zone."

Russia has said its soldiers have pushed into Georgia from South Ossetia to build a security zone to protect the South Ossetians.

It has accused Georgian snipers of firing on its soldiers and sabotaging positions despite the ceasefire signed last week.

Russian checkpoints now block the main east-west highway, a vital trade route which links Tbilisi with Georgia's Black Sea ports. Russian soldiers have also moved into towns in western Georgia, controlling traffic and movement.

(Editing by Robert Hart)

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