TBILISI (Reuters) - Russian soldiers stood guard at checkpoints deep inside Georgia’s heartland on Saturday, drawing accusations from Washington that Moscow’s military pullback did not match up to what it had promised.
Russia says it will permanently station what it calls peacekeeping troops inside Georgia to prevent new bloodshed, but Georgia and its Western allies suspect the Kremlin will use the force to keep a stranglehold on the ex-Soviet state.
Moscow sent in troops after Georgia tried to retake its breakaway South Ossetia region. Russia crushed Georgian forces and pushed on further, crossing the country’s main East-West highway and moving close to a Western-backed oil pipeline.
Convoys of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and soldiers left their positions on Friday and headed back into rebel-held territory -- a redeployment Russia said complied with a French-brokered ceasefire deal.
But Reuters reporters saw Russian soldiers digging trenches near Georgia’s main Black Sea port of Poti, while Moscow said it had set up checkpoints in a “security zone” extending beyond South Ossetia into undisputed Georgian territory.
“It is my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory and they need to do that,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he was “deeply concerned” that Russian forces had not withdrawn to their positions before the outbreak of hostilities, as agreed.
The continued presence of Russian troops is an emotive issue for Georgians, who threw off Kremlin rule when Georgia won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
It also challenges the growing U.S. influence in the region -- a major overland trade route between Europe and Asia and a transit corridor for oil and gas exports from the Caspian Sea that is favored by the West because it bypasses Russia.
NATO has frozen contacts with Russia in a show of support for Georgia, an aspiring member of the military alliance. But despite angry rhetoric, Western states have avoided talk of specific sanctions against Moscow.
Russia’s defense ministry said it had complied with the pullback set out in a ceasefire deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“The pullout was carried out without any incidents and was completed according to plan at 19:50 Moscow time (1550 GMT),” the ministry said in a statement.
“Peacekeeping checkpoints in the security zone have started carrying out the tasks set before them. In this way, the Russian side has implemented the agreements set out (by the presidents of Russia and France),” it said.
Russia has denied any plans to annex Georgian territory, saying it only wants to protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second Georgian breakaway region, from a pro-Western Georgian leadership it accuses of dangerous aggression.
Most people in the two rebel regions hold Russian passports and do not want to be part of Georgia.
Residents in the Georgian town of Gori, occupied by Russian forces since they stormed in earlier this month, watched the soldiers pack up and leave on Friday.
“We’re peaceful people,” said one soldier as he waited for the order to leave the town. “We’re peacekeepers.”
But the Russian checkpoints still dotted across undisputed Georgian territory -- including on the highway linking the capital to the Black Sea -- emerged as the new battleground.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a report that the long-term presence of Russian troops would undermine Georgia’s statehood.
“This should be strongly rejected by Western states as guaranteed to keep the dispute at boiling point, with negative ramifications for wider East-West relations,” the report said.
((Reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow, Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Jeremy Pelofsky in Crawford, Texas; Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Angus MacSwan)
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