Bush, European Leaders Urge Quick Withdrawal From Georgia

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

MOSCOW, Aug. 17 -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday that Russian forces will begin withdrawing on Monday to positions held before heavy fighting broke out over two separatist provinces. The announcement came after several days of mixed signals from the Kremlin about whether its tanks would head deeper into Georgia or head home.

The announcement came as President Bush and other Western leaders sharpened their demands that Russia keep its word on a revised truce or face political and economic isolation.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who negotiated the agreement as the current head of the European Union, spoke with Medvedev by telephone before the Kremlin's announcement. Sarkozy warned that continued delay could have "serious consequences" for Russia's relationship with the E.U.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at a news conference in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, said she expected "a very fast, very prompt withdrawal of Russian troops out of Georgia."

"This is an urgent matter," she said, with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at her side.

Merkel called for an international peacekeeping force to be sent to the region as soon as possible, and she reiterated strong support for Georgia's bid to join NATO.

Saakashvili praised Merkel as "brave" for supporting his country, and he accused other European nations of not seeing signs that Russia had intended for months to move against Georgia.

"Georgia will never give up a square kilometer of its territory," he said.

As he spoke, Russian tanks and soldiers held control of huge areas of the country, including its main highway, the strategic central city of Gori, the western city of Senaki and the Senaki air base.

A truce was first reached Wednesday after five days of fierce fighting in which the Georgian forces were routed. All sides said that one of the plan's six points called for the withdrawal to previous positions -- a condition that prompted celebration in the streets of Tbilisi.

But Russian forces showed no sign of leaving. The Kremlin has explained the delay by saying more time was needed to make unspecified "security arrangements." Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, challenged the document itself, saying the Russian and French heads of state had signed a document different from the written framework Georgia's president approved.

Medvedev said that Russia would return to zones inside Abkhazia and South Ossetia that its troops held before violence escalated, but that Georgian forces must also return to their previous positions.

Hours before Medvedev's announcement, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a colonel general on the Russian General Staff, told reporters that Russian forces had taken control of the Inguri hydroelectric plant in Abkhazia. He said the move was a precaution against sabotage.

"We know very well that the Inguri hydropower plant supplies electricity to dozens of thousands of Georgian and Abkhaz homes, and we are well aware that strategic facilities of this kind could be targeted in provocations and even terror attacks," Nogovitsyn was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Nogovitsyn told reporters Saturday that troops were not ready to leave Georgia but were taking steps toward doing so.

Russian troops have been stationed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to serve as peacekeepers under a 1999 agreement.

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