By Tara Bahrampour, Howard Schneider and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 15, 2008 5:39 PM
TBILISI, Georgia, Aug. 15 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded Friday that Russian troops withdraw from Georgian territory "immediately" now that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has signed a cease-fire agreement.
After arriving here to discuss the deal with Saakashvili and to show U.S. support for Georgia's embattled government, Rice told reporters, "Our most urgent task today is the immediate and orderly withdrawal of Russian armed forces and the return of those forces to Russia." She said that "all Russian troops and any irregular and paramilitary forces that entered with them must leave immediately." The only forces allowed to stay under the cease-fire agreement are Russian peacekeeping troops who were in two breakaway provinces of Georgia before Aug. 6, she said.
In a joint news conference with Saakashvili, Rice said international observers are needed on the scene to monitor the Russian withdrawal and that the United States is talking to European allies about getting such a force in place "in a matter of days." She said those observers should be followed eventually by "a more robust peacekeeping force."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev provided assurances Friday that "he would also sign the accord and that Russia would scrupulously respect the engagements in the accord, notably those concerning the withdrawal of Russian forces," the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement after the two presidents spoke. Sarkozy, who brokered the cease-fire deal, reportedly obtained Medvedev's signature on the plan Tuesday before flying to Tbilisi to present it to Saakashvili. It was not immediately clear whether there were changes that required Medvedev to sign it a second time.
An emotional Saakashvili stressed that the agreement he signed Friday "is not a final settlement" of the dispute over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two Georgian provinces controlled by Russian-backed separatists. "This is a cease-fire agreement between us and the Russians, facilitated by France and the United States," he said. "And we certainly should move from this temporary arrangement to . . . an international peacekeeping force on the ground to replace the occupiers."
Saakashvili apparently accepted the accord grudgingly after nearly five hours of talks with Rice. News services reported that the agreement contains no specific deadlines for Russian withdrawal and offers concessions to Russia that the Georgian president evidently found difficult to accept, such as the continued presence of Russian peacekeeping troops in the breakaway provinces.
The Georgian president later charged that Russian tanks have moved deeper into his country, advancing on the towns of Khashari and Borjomi and widening their "occupation," Reuters news agency reported. The agency said a Russian military convoy made up of about 17 armored personnel carriers and 200 troops advanced to a village about 30 miles from the capital Friday in the deepest Russian incursion so far.
Speaking in forceful terms in the news conference with Rice, Saakashvili decried what he said was European inattention to his warnings in recent months that Russia was planning to invade Georgia. He asserted that the situation in South Ossetia was a pretext for the invasion and that Moscow's ultimate aim was to "kill Georgian democracy." He repeatedly invoked comparisons to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin as he denounced the current leadership in Moscow.
"Today we are looking evil directly in the eye," he said. "And today this evil is very strong, very nasty and very dangerous for everybody, not only for us."
Saakashvili described Georgia's former status as a Soviet republic as "70 years of subjugation by barbarians" and said he "grew up with the idea that it should never happen again." He vowed, "Never, ever will we surrender."
Rice arrived in the Georgian capital as President Bush made some of his strongest comments to date on a crisis that has undermined relations between Moscow and Washington.
Bush, speaking as he left the White House for a vacation at his ranch in Texas, said the incursion of Russian troops into Georgia last week amounted to "bullying and intimidation" of a democratic neighbor, remarks that further escalated the Cold War-style rhetoric exchanged between the United States and Russia in recent days.
He demanded that Russian troops leave Georgia and lauded the country for its transition to democratic politics and market economics in the years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Noting that Georgia, a small nation with limited military resources, sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq, he reiterated that the United States would stand by it in the current crisis.
"The people of Georgia have cast their lot with the free world, and we will not cast them aside," Bush said. "Unfortunately, Russia has tended to view the extension of freedom and democracy as a threat to its interests. . . . Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century. "
In Moscow, meanwhile, top Russian officials made clear that the dissatisfaction runs both ways. A day after the United States and Poland signed a new missile defense deal, a top Russian general said the arrangement "can't go unpunished."
The positioning of missile defense equipment in former Warsaw Pact countries has been an on-going source of contention between Washington and Moscow, and Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a colonel-general on Russia's General Staff, charged that the signing of the agreement on Thursday was not coincidental.
"We can only regret that at this very difficult time, the U.S. side is further aggravating relations between the U.S. and Russia," Nogovitsyn said, suggesting that the U.S. equipment would be a legitimate military target.
The high-level rhetoric occurred as diplomatic efforts continued to end the immediate crisis sparked by the incursion of thousands of Russian troops into Georgia last week in support of the Russian-allied separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Rice arrived in Tbilisi even as Russian troops continued occupying key positions in the central city of Gori, a few dozen miles from here, and in other spots throughout the country.
In a meeting with Saakashvili, she said she clarified key points of a French-brokered cease-fire agreement that would remove the bulk of Russian forces from Georgian territory. While the agreement gives Russia leeway to conduct what it regards as peacekeeping operations around South Ossetia, Rice said it would still accomplish the important interim goal of removing Russian troops from the city of Gori and other positions on undisputed Georgian soil.
"The United States would never ask Georgia to sign onto something where its interests were not protected," Rice said en route to Tbilisi. "This is not an agreement about the future of Abkhazia and the future of South Ossetia. . . . This is about getting Russian troops out."
The United States also has begun humanitarian aid deliveries to Georgia and will be involved in future discussions about the fate of the two disputed provinces. Top Russian officials say that Abkhazia and South Ossetia should not return to Georgian control, while the United States and Europe say they expect Georgia's borders to be respected.
As Rice visited Tbilisi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as part of on-going European mediation efforts.
After a week in which Russian troop movements seemed to raise the possibility of a full-scale takeover of the country, Georgia remained in a state of uncertainty. On Thursday, the Russians first retreated from and then returned to the central city of Gori, about 50 miles from the capital. They then spent much of the day destroying or carrying away captured Georgian military equipment. Elsewhere in the country, Russian tanks and trucks rolled along country roads toward unknown destinations, watched by local people.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared Thursday that Georgia could "forget about" ever regaining the two secessionist regions that are at the heart of the conflict. At the Kremlin, Medvedev warmly received the political leaders of the zones, which Georgia and the United States insist remain part of Georgia.
Three days ago, Medvedev said Russian troops had ceased hostilities and would withdraw. Since then, his troops have moved erratically, heading in one direction and then veering off or reversing course. Russian authorities have given contradictory accounts of how or when the troops might withdraw to Russia or the separatist areas.
"They want to paralyze the country as long as they can," said Georgian Deputy Minister of Defense Batu Kutalia, who was monitoring developments from Egoeti, a town eight miles east of Gori. "They are putting everything in a nonusable condition and taking what they want."
The cease-fire appeared largely to be holding, despite scattered reports of shooting and car thefts by fighters from the separatist zones. A Georgian television journalist was slightly wounded on camera as she delivered a report in Gori Thursday.
In the central Georgian city, which straddles the country's main east-west highway, Russian troops began to move out Thursday in seeming compliance with the cease-fire agreement. Georgian police started to move in to take control of the city, but then the Russians returned.
Kutalia said the Russians still had 90 tanks in the city and were destroying a military base there, blowing up buildings, ripping out water and electricity lines and taking away armaments. The base had been built to technical standards of the NATO alliance, which Georgia wants to join, and could accommodate 3,500 soldiers.
Inside Gori, the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, Alexander Lomaia, spent a second day negotiating with Vyachislav Borisov, a Russian major general. "We've been trying to convince the general to let the police in," Lomaia said in a telephone interview. "Initially they agreed and then unexpectedly said no." Later, he said that the Russian general had promised that the police could return Friday.
Lomaia said that during their talks, Borisov had gotten a call that Georgian vehicles were approaching Gori. "They take that as a threat, and they said to either stop these cars or they will bomb them," Lomaia said.
He added that 180 Russian vehicles had left Gori on Thursday. He did not know if armaments and other equipment were being taken to Russia or to Tskhinvali, the capital of the disputed region of South Ossetia, a move that he said "would equip the separatist army in a pretty impressive way."
According to Temuri Yakobashvili, the Georgian minister in charge of attempts to bring the two zones back into the government's fold, Russian forces remained Thursday in the western cities of Poti, Zugdidi and Senaki. They have scuttled Georgian gunboats in Poti and destroyed a base in Senaki.
A photographer for the Reuters news agency took pictures a mile and a half outside Zugdidi of numerous Russian vehicles, soldiers sitting casually atop them. Saakashvili said a Russian column was moving down the country's main east-west artery toward the city of Kutaisi, where they have never gone before.
The two separatist zones seized de facto independence by force of arms in the early 1990s. Last week the Georgian army stormed South Ossetia to try to take it back but were quickly repelled by Russian forces that then advanced far into undisputed Georgian territory.
Reports from Sukhumi, capital of the other disputed region, Abkhazia, said residents were celebrating after Russian-backed separatists this week took Kodori Gorge, part of which was the only sliver of Abkhazia controlled by Georgia.
Kutalia said the death toll among Georgian service members was 160, with 300 still missing. Georgia has an army of 32,000. Approximately 100,000 people -- Georgians and South Ossetians -- have been displaced by the past week's fighting.
Two more air shipments of U.S. humanitarian aid arrived in Georgia. Some of the supplies were allowed into Gori, Lomaia said.
The Georgian capital, Tbilisi, was calmer Thursday as residents took food and clothing to shelters that had been set up in schools and other public buildings to accommodate the stream of ethnic Georgian refugees.
In an old printing house turned into a shelter, Spiridon Mamisashvili, 62, said he had stayed in his town, Eredwi, in South Ossetia to take care of his cattle. But on Wednesday, masked militia rounded up seven of his neighbors and shot them as Mamisashvili watched from a hiding place in his garden.
"They were telling us that they were not going to kill the old people, but now they are killing the old people, too," he said. After walking all night through a valley, he reached Gori on Thursday morning and from there found a ride to Tbilisi.
Shorena Lakhashvili, 28, said she had been in the shelter for four days, since retreating Georgian troops had warned her to leave her town in South Ossetia. She said her father was missing and mobile phone access to the region had been jammed.
Correspondent Peter Finn in Egoeti contributed to this report. Schneider and Branigin reported from Washington.