September 9, 2008 / 12:02 AM / 11 years ago

Russia plans 7,600 force in Georgia rebel regions

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia announced plans on Tuesday to station about 7,600 troops in Georgia’s separatist regions, more than twice the number based there before last month’s war and a level likely to alarm the West.

A Russian peacekeeper is seen at the checkpoint in the village of Khobi, September 8, 2008. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said troops would stay in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for a long time to prevent any “repeat of Georgian aggression”.

Moscow’s intervention in Georgia last month, in which its forces crushed an attempt by Tbilisi to retake South Ossetia, drew widespread international condemnation and prompted concern over the security of energy supplies.

Russia agreed on Monday to withdraw its soldiers from areas outside South Ossetia, and the second breakaway region of Abkhazia, within a month, but troops inside the two regions were not explicitly mentioned in the French-brokered deal.

Briefing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on talks with the separatist leaders, Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said: “We have already agreed on the contingent — in the region of 3,800 men in each republic — its structure and location.”

Russia angered the West last month by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi’s rule in separatist wars in the 1990s, as independent states. Nicaragua is the only other state to have recognized their independence.

Lavrov also met the two separatist regions’ foreign ministers on Tuesday to formally establish diplomatic ties, a step likely to further irritate Western governments.

Asked at a news conference how long Russian forces would stay in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Lavrov said: “They will be there for a long time, at least for the foreseeable period. That is necessary to not allow a repeat of Georgian aggression.”

PEACEKEEPING FORCE

Russia has said it was morally obliged to send in its military last month to prevent what it called a genocide in the separatist regions by an aggressive Georgian government.

Before fighting broke out in Georgia last month, Russia had a peacekeeping force of 1,000 servicemen in South Ossetia and a contingent of about 2,500 in Abkhazia. They were operating under a peacekeeping mandate dating back to the 1990s.

Russia has welcomed the European Union’s role as a mediator over Georgia but in sharp contrast, it has accused the United States of contributing to the conflict by arming Georgia and failing to rein in its leadership.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the White House’s decision to rescind a draft agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia was “mistaken and politicized.”

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who visited Georgia last week to show solidarity with the ex-Soviet state, said in Rome on Tuesday that the international community was united in deploring Russia’s military action.

LIMITED RESPONSE

Both the European Union and the United States have warned Russia it could face serious consequences over its actions in Georgia, but the scope for punitive measures is limited.

Europe depends on Russia for more than a quarter of its gas supplies and Washington needs Russia’s cooperation in efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

After four hours of talks outside Moscow on Monday, Medvedev and EU leaders led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed that Russian forces in buffer zones outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia would pull back within a month.

They are to be replaced with an international monitoring force which will include a 200-strong EU contingent.

Questions remain about Russia’s dominant role inside the two separatist regions, where most residents hold Russian passports.

The fighting in Georgia worried energy markets because it was waged near the route of an oil pipeline that can pump up to 1 million barrels of crude per day from the Caspian Sea. The pipeline is favored by the West because it bypasses Russia.

The International Court of Justice in the Hague, the highest United Nations court, this week began hearing Georgian allegations that Russian violated the human rights of ethnic Georgians in the separatist regions.

Slideshow (17 Images)

Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian military’s General Staff, said Russia had nothing to hide.

“At this trial, our position is calm and dignified,” he told foreign military attachees. “I am firmly convinced that the Russian Federation took the only right decision.”

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