GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian troops will pull back from Georgia’s heartland by the end of this week, the Kremlin said on Tuesday, but NATO said it was freezing contacts with Moscow until all Russian forces were out of the country.
Western powers, led by the United States, have called for an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops under a ceasefire plan that ended the two countries’ short war over the rebel Georgian province of South Ossetia.
NATO ministers, meeting in emergency session in Brussels, backed this demand by suspending regular contacts with Russia. But they did not announce moves to speed up Georgian accession to the Western military alliance, as Tbilisi had hoped.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference NATO’s response to the conflict was biased and accused NATO of siding with a “criminal regime” in Tbilisi.
The Kremlin quoted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as saying that Russian forces would by Aug. 22 pull back to the positions set out under the French-brokered ceasefire.
That would require most of them to withdraw to Russia or South Ossetia but parts of the force, under the terms of the deal, will remain in a buffer zone around the breakaway region.
“By 22 August... a part of the peacekeepers will be pulled back to the temporary security zone,” a Kremlin statement quoted Medvedev as telling French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a telephone conversation.
“The remaining contingent that was used to reinforce the peacekeepers will be pulled back to the territory of South Ossetia and to Russia,” the statement said.
Medvedev told Sarkozy he agreed to the presence of observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the buffer zone, Sarkozy’s office said in a separate statement.
U.S. officials said they had not seen any substantial withdrawal of Russian troops so far.
In Gori, a strategic town on Georgia’s main east-west highway, six Russian armoured personnel carriers, three tanks and two other vehicles started their engines and drove out through the sun-scorched countryside, kicking up clouds of dust.
“This is one of the first units to be pulled out,” said an official from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which arranged for reporters to watch the column leave.
But close by, Russian troops could be seen digging trenches near artillery positions. Shirtless paratroopers sunbathed in the street on civilian sofas and couches.
Later on Tuesday a Reuters reporter, travelling on the main road used by Russian troops to enter Georgia, saw little traffic heading out of Georgia and no evidence of a large-scale pullout.
“The Russians time and again move their tanks to Tskhinvali (the South Ossetian capital) from Gori and then back again. I categorically deny this amounts to a withdrawal,” said Shota Utiashvili, an official at Georgia’s Interior Ministry.
Conflict erupted over separatist South Ossetia when Georgia sent in its army to try to take back the pro-Moscow province on August 7-8, provoking a huge counter-attack from Russia.
Both Russia and Western states have tried unsuccessfully to have resolutions on the conflict adopted in the United Nations Security Council.
A Western draft resolution obtained by Reuters demands an immediate Russian withdrawal to lines held before the conflict.
Stepping up Russian pressure on Tbilisi, Moscow closed its land border with Georgia to citizens who are not from the CIS, a grouping of former Soviet states that Georgia says it is quitting.
The head of Russia’s main domestic FSB spy service, Alexander Bortnikov, ordered extra security to foil what he said was a plan by Georgian security to carry out “terrorist acts” inside Russia. Georgia dismissed the accusation as “nonsense”.
Air, rail and sea links between Russia and its former Soviet vassal have already been cut. The virtual blockade has hurt Georgia’s economy, which depends heavily on Russia.
Western powers have condemned Russia’s response as disproportionate, while Moscow says it was necessary to protect Russian citizens and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia and prevent Georgia carrying out “genocide”.
The Russian military campaign has been popular at home but has worsened already bad relations with Washington.
Russia’s navy cancelled a September visit by a U.S. frigate in the latest sign of official displeasure. The move followed a decision last week by Washington to pull out of a four-nation naval exercise with Russia in the Pacific.
Saakashvili accuses Russia of trying to sabotage his leadership and Georgian democracy.
But Russia’s Lavrov said restrictions imposed by Saakashvili’s government on Russian news media and Internet sites cast doubt on Georgia’s right to call itself a democracy.
“You can probably judge objectively for yourselves the state of Georgian democracy and who is trying to wreck it,” Lavrov said. He added that Russia had no plans to occupy Georgia or annex parts of its territory.
But Russian checkpoints now block the main east-west highway, a vital trade route which links Tbilisi with Turkey and Georgia’s Black Sea ports. Russian soldiers have also moved into towns in western Georgia, controlling traffic and movement.
Russian forces said they had detained 20 “heavily armed” Georgians in the Black Sea port of Poti. A Reuters cameraman saw several men blindfolded and placed in Russian armoured personnel carriers.
Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Igoeti, Ralph Boulton in Tbilisi, Patrick Worsnip in New York, Aydar Buribaev and Christian Lowe in Moscow