TBILISI (Reuters) - Russia announced it would begin withdrawing forces from Georgia on Monday after a war that dealt a humiliating blow to the Black Sea state and raised fears for energy supplies to Europe.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose failed invasion of the pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia triggered a Russian backlash that shocked the West, called for international monitoring of the pullout.
“I think the world should watch,” he told a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Tbilisi. Merkel said the world would indeed be watching for Russia to withdraw quickly under the terms of a six-point peace plan brokered by France.
The United States, which has warned Moscow its military actions in the former Soviet republic could seriously damage relations with the West, urged Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to withdraw troops quickly.
“This time I hope he means it,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told NBC’s “Meet the Press”. “The word of the Russian president needs to be upheld by his forces or people are going to begin to wonder if Russia can be trusted.”
Moscow has given no firm deadline for its complete withdrawal. A statement from the Kremlin read: “From tomorrow (Monday), Russia will begin the withdrawal of the military contingent which was moved to reinforce Russian peacekeepers after the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Russia must withdraw “without delay”, adding that he would call European Union leaders to an extraordinary summit on the crisis if the peace deal were not respected “rapidly and totally”.
Underlining continued high tension, Russia’s Defence Ministry said Georgia was planning a “major provocative act” in the city of Gori, captured by Russian forces on Tuesday as they fanned out from the disputed region into the Georgian heartland.
It said Georgia was forming bands of mercenaries who would be given Russian uniforms and told to loot and pillage.
Georgia issued a swift denial. “Such a provocation would only be staged by the Russian side, with the aim of keeping Russian military units in the conflict zone,” the Georgian Interior Ministry said in a statement.
A United Nations aid convoy which entered Gori on Sunday reported evidence of large-scale looting. “While the buildings did not appear to be very damaged, there are clear signs of massive looting of both shops and private accommodations,” the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
Russian troops remained in position around Gori, which commands the approaches to South Ossetia and the main east-west highway and should be central to covering a Russian withdrawal.
Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov, now a familiar figure touring the area of his command around Gori in a Georgian four-wheel drive, could not say when he would be moving out.
“We were the first in, so we’ll be the last out,” Borisov told Reuters at the roadside near Gori.
There was no sign of shooting and troops appeared relaxed.
A Georgian official accused Russian forces of destroying Georgian television and radio transmitters in the Gori region and installing their own.
Each side has accused the other of attempted genocide. Russia says some 1,600 people were killed in the initial Georgian shelling of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali while Georgia accuses Russian and irregular forces of leveling Georgian villages around Tskhinvali.
The 10-day confrontation killed around 200 Georgians, dealt a crushing blow to the country’s military, damaged its economy, disrupted road and rail links and drew criticism in the West of Saakashvili’s handling of the crisis.
The Russian action rattled the West, which transports oil and gas from the Caspian region through pipelines across Georgian territory, a route favored because it bypasses Russia. Some saw dark portents in Russia launching its first invasion of a former Soviet state.
Russia argued it was justified in intervening to protect South Ossetians, but Moscow also suffered losses, both human and economic. The campaign sent Russian stocks tumbling to their lowest in nearly two years and worried foreign investors.
Russia has made clear it sees no prospect in the foreseeable future of South Ossetia being reintegrated into Georgia.
Talks are under way to establish international agreement on a peacekeeping force, which seems likely, whatever Georgia’s objections, to include a large Russian contingent.
Merkel, in remarks likely to irk the Kremlin, reiterated the prospect of NATO membership for Georgia, which as a Soviet republic housed Moscow’s frontline radar and missile defenses.
“In December we will have a first evaluation of the situation and we are on a clear path in the direction of NATO membership,” she said. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CNN Georgian NATO membership was “very much still on the table”.
Additional reporting by James Kilner in Tbilisi; Writing by Ralph Boulton in Tbilisi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy