August 18, 2008 / 3:45 AM / 9 years ago

Russia prepares to start Georgia pullout

A Russian tank rolls along a street destroyed by a Georgian strike in the South Ossetian capital of Tshinvali, August 16, 2008.Denis Sinyakov

GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian troops with armoured cars mounted checkpoints on a major Georgian highway on Monday, ahead of a promised withdrawal from parts of the country under an international ceasefire plan.

Soldiers in helmets inspected the boots of cars and asked drivers for identification on the main road from the capital Tbilisi to the central town of Gori. Armoured vehicles and tanks stood nearby in fields, covered by camouflage tarpaulins.

The Kremlin has announced that Russia will start pulling back on Monday but has not given a specific time.

Russia mounted its biggest military deployment outside its borders since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union after Georgia sent a force on Aug. 7-8 to try to recapture the rebel, Moscow-backed province of South Ossetia.

The European Union and the United States, wary of a drift back into conflict if there are delays, are pressing Moscow to finish the pullout quickly.

Both Brussels and Washington want to see international observers on the ground quickly to monitor the pullout but no arrangements for this have yet been made.

The United Nations said a first aid convoy managed to enter Gori on Sunday and said that while buildings did not appear to be very damaged, there were "clear signs of massive looting".

Kakha Lomaia, the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, said on Monday morning he saw no sign of a Russian withdrawal.

"The Russian general (Vyacheslav Borisov) promised last night to start the pullout at 10 a.m., but so far there is no sign," he said on the main highway to Gori.

Georgian television showed pictures of Russian forces moving out of the western Georgian town of Senaki, but it was not clear if this was part of the promised larger withdrawal.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in a dramatic shift from previous statements condemning Russians as "21st century barbarians" bent on ethnic cleansing, called on Monday for talks with Moscow.

"I appeal to you that after your armed forces leave Georgian territory, to start serious thinking and discussions about further negotiations, a further search for ways (to conduct) relations in order not to sow discord between our countries for good," Saakashvili said in the broadcast, made available to Reuters in advance.

Russian leaders have condemned Saakashvili as a dangerous maniac and have suggested privately that there is no need to speak to him because his own people will topple him before long.

ACCUSATIONS OF "GENOCIDE"

The 10-day confrontation around South Ossetia has killed more than 170 Georgians, dealt a blow to the Georgian military, damaged the country's economy, disrupted road and rail links and drew Western criticism of Saakashvili's handling of the crisis.

Washington has strongly backed its close ally Georgia and accused Russia of "bullying" its small, former Soviet vassal.

Russia and Georgia have accused each other of attempted genocide during the conflict, though some humanitarian organisations have questioned whether the term is appropriate.

Russia says some 1,600 people were killed in the initial Georgian attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, a figure which has not been independently confirmed.

Georgia accuses Russian and irregular forces of levelling Georgian villages around the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali.

In Tskhinvali, the separatist leader Eduard Kokoity fired his administration on Monday, saying they had failed to perform properly in the wake of the fighting.

"A civil servant is supposed to work for the people, and not use his position for his own benefit," Kokoity said in remarks shown on Russian television.

Russia and international relief agencies have sent aid to the conflict zone to help thousands of displaced people and help restore ruined infrastructure, water and sanitation facilities.

The Russians have not set a deadline for completion of the military pullout, saying it depends on stability in Georgia.

The conflict has rattled the West, which draws oil and gas through pipelines across Georgian territory from the Caspian region -- a route favoured because it bypasses Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Medvedev to withdraw troops quickly.

"This time I hope he means it," she told NBC's "Meet the Press". "The word of the Russian president needs to be upheld by his forces or people are going to begin to wonder if Russia can be trusted."

The six-point peace plan foresee a prompt withdrawal of Russian forces from 'core Georgia' -- the areas outside South Ossetia and a second Russian-backed separatist province of Abkhazia -- but the West will also be looking for Russian troops to cut back their numbers quickly in South Ossetia itself.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi

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