Rice to ask Georgia to sign peace deal: Sarkozy

BREGANCON, France (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will ask Georgia’s president on Friday to sign a French-negotiated ceasefire that contains some apparent concessions to Moscow but would lead to the withdrawal of Russian forces, officials said.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, before the start of a meeting about the Russia-Georgia conflict at the Fort de Bregancon residence in Bormes-les Mimosas on the French Riviera , August 14, 2008. REUTERS/Philippe Laurenson

The six-point ceasefire accord Rice will take to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili provides for the withdrawal of all Russian forces, leaving behind only the peacekeeping troops who were in place in South Ossetia and Abkhazia before the start of the crisis, a senior U.S. official said.

It would give the Russian peacekeepers a new but limited authority to patrol certain areas of Georgia until third-party peacekeepers and observers arrive, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The United States had concerns about the arrangement, the official said, but was willing to accept limited patrolling in the interest of a quick ceasefire that would get the Russian army out of Georgia.

Russian troops and armor moved in or around at least three Georgian towns on Thursday, ignoring Washington’s demands that Moscow respect Georgia’s territorial integrity, a day after Russia and Georgia agreed to the peace plan proposed by Sarkozy.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Rice at his presidential summer residence on the Mediterranean coast and later told reporters “She will be taking a certain number of documents that will make it possible to consolidate the ceasefire.”

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Rice made the stop in France -- which holds the European Union’s rotating presidency -- on her way to Georgia, where she is due to meet Saakashvili.

“If tomorrow Mr Saakashvili signs the document that we have negotiated with (Russian President) Mr (Dmitry) Medvedev, then the withdrawal of Russian troops can begin,” Sarkozy said.

Saakashvili and Medvedev agreed to a six-point peace plan proposed by Sarkozy on Tuesday and Wednesday, but neither side has signed it.

The Georgian president said on Wednesday the text did not require his signature, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner on Thursday Saakashvili had to sign it.

“It was underlined that the document should finally be signed by the Georgian side, as was agreed in Moscow. The French minister assured that Paris is working on this,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement about their conversation.

Russian armed forces have occupied parts of Georgia since repelling a Georgian attack last week on the tiny pro-Russian separatist territory of South Ossetia.

Sarkozy’s office said in a statement that the peace deal should also be signed by Russia as soon as possible.

“The head of state and Mrs Rice both believed that the six-point draft agreement approved by (Medvedev) and (Saakashvili) on August 12 should be signed by the parties without delay in order to consolidate the cessation of hostilities and accelerate the Russian forces’ withdrawal,” it said.

Sarkozy said the ceasefire was fragile but the situation on the ground was improving. Rice repeated U.S. demands that Russia withdraw its troops from Georgia’s territory.

“The United States of America stands strongly for the territorial integrity of Georgia. It is time for this crisis to end,” she said.

“The Russian president has said that their military operations have halted. We would hope that he is true to his word and that their operations will halt,” she added.

Additional reporting by Pierre Thebault in Bregancon and Conor Sweeney in Moscow; writing by Francois Murphy, editing by Tim Pearce