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Earnings

Russian trucks trickle out of Georgia

VERKHNY ZARAMAG, Russia (Reuters) - Russian military trucks trickled back into Russia from Georgia on Wednesday but no armored vehicles or artillery passed and there was no sign of the large-scale rapid pullout demanded by the West.

The White House said it had seen initial signs that Russia was withdrawing some of its forces from Georgia but Moscow needed to move faster. Germany, a key trading partner of Russia, described the situation in Georgia as “very unsatisfactory”.

A Reuters reporter at Verkhny Zaramag, on the border between Russia and Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia, said the only heavy armor heading into Russia at the crossing was a column of Georgian equipment seized by Russian forces.

He saw eight armored personnel carriers, followed by three T-72 main battle tanks. The tanks had markings on their turrets in Latin script. Russian armor has Cyrillic markings.

Earlier, the reporter saw about 40 trucks covered with tarpaulins, some apparently empty, crossing the frontier.

“It (the withdrawal) is not significant and it needs to increase,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters aboard Air Force One as U.S. President George W. Bush flew to Florida to give a speech on terrorism.

“Both the size and pace of the withdrawal needs to increase and needs to increase sooner rather than later,” he said. “I don’t think they need any more additional time.”

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has worked closely in the crisis with his powerful mentor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, said on Tuesday Russia would withdraw its forces from Georgia by Friday under a peace plan brokered by France.

But diplomats say Russia appears to have secured its military objectives and is in no hurry to give ground. It wants instead to secure maximum advantage from occupying a troublesome neighbor, whose pro-U.S. policies have angered it, they say.

SKEPTICISM

Russia reserves the right to leave some troops in a buffer zone around the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Impatience is turning to skepticism over the delays.

“Three times Medvedev has said they are starting the withdrawal and they have not,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted in the International Herald Tribune newspaper as saying. “We cannot accept this kind of blindness, not accepting international law.”

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In Berlin, German government spokesman Thomas Steg said: “At the moment we have no tangible indication that the Russian troop withdrawal has really started ... The Russian side has to follow up what it has promised with concrete action.”

An official of the Council of Europe, a pan-European forum that promotes democracy, said his convoy was hampered by Russian military checkpoints during a trip to assess conditions in the Russian-occupied central Georgian town of Gori.

“Gori is a ghost town. You see hardly anybody on the streets,” Matyas Eorsi told a news conference, adding that two banks in the centre of the city had been looted.

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“We don’t know who did the looting but under international law the occupying power bears full responsibility,” he said.

Around 30,000 refugees were waiting to return to Gori but were too afraid to go back while Russian tanks continued to block roads, Eorsi added.

Near the village of Igoeti, the closest Russian checkpoint to the capital Tbilisi, Russian troops wearing helmets with the sky-blue bands of peacekeepers were digging into foxholes at the side of the road. There was no sign of Russian convoys on the move there, 45 km (30 miles) from the capital.

The crisis erupted on August 7-8 when Georgia tried to recapture South Ossetia, which broke with Tbilisi in 1992. Russian forces hit back, thrusting beyond the region into the Georgian heartland, overrunning the army in fierce fighting.

Both sides issued new casualty figures. Russia said it had lost 64 military dead and Georgia announced 215 dead, including 69 civilians. Russia has previously said 1,600 South Ossetian civilians died after Georgia attacked the province, though this figure has not been independently verified.

DIPLOMACY

At the U.N., Western powers pushed for a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate Russian withdrawal from Georgia, but veto-holding Russia declined to back it.

Agreement at the U.N. is also needed for international peacekeepers to be sent to Georgia. In the meantime, the six-point peace plan accepted by all sides allows Russian forces to take additional unspecified security measures.

A draft U.N. text referred to “the territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders”. Russia argues that phrasing implies the pro-Russian rebel region of South Ossetia, at the centre of the conflict, should be reintegrated into Georgia proper.

Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already said the world can forget about Georgia’s territorial integrity after the bloodshed of the last two weeks.

Russian lawmakers will hold an extraordinary session next week to urge the Kremlin to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and of Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian region backed by Moscow..

Writing by Gareth Jones and Ralph Boulton; Editing by Giles Elgood

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