Russia hints at long stay in South Ossetia
TBILISI, Georgia (CNN) — Russian troops appeared to be still in control of a key Georgian city Thursday as Moscow declined to give any timetable for the withdrawal of its forces from the disputed Georgian enclave of South Ossetia.
Russian troops stand guard Thursday at an entrance to the Georgian city Gori.
CNN’s Michael Ware said Russian forces were still evident in the Georgian city of Gori Thursday despite an agreement to hand over control as part of an internationally mediated cease-fire deal to end days of territorial fighting.
Russian Gen. Nikolai Uvarov told CNN the handover of the city was “under way right now” and would be finished later Thursday.
He said Russia had invaded the city beyond the borders of South Ossetia because it is Georgia’s main military base and an arms munition storage there had been left unattended.
Meanwhile Russia’s deputy chief of general staff, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said a withdrawal plan to pull troops from the breakaway region had yet to be approved by Russia’s defense ministry or its president, Dmitry Medvedev.
“It is not easy to turn around the existing [forces] by 180 degrees,” Nogovitsyn said.
Earlier, a U.S. official told CNN about 200 Russian troops were in Gori. Georgia’s Interior Ministry said Russia tanks had returned there to aid the withdrawal.
Explosions heard in the city were the result of Russian troops clearing unexploded ordnance, the Interior Ministry said.
It said Georgian police had begun returning to Gori as Russian forces moved out. Once they were established the Russian troops would fully withdraw. Watch rescuers search for survivors of the fighting »
However, just how far Russia’s forces would move remained unclear.
During a Moscow visit by the leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Georgia’s current borders were “limited” — an indication that the two breakaway regions may never agree to rejoin it. Watch more on aid for Georgia »
All three voiced their unity against what Abkhazian leader Sergey Bagapsh called “those aggressors from Georgia.”
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity compared Georgia’s initial assault on the region’s capital Tskhinvali — which prompted the Russian invasion — to Germany’s attempt to seize Stalingrad during World War II.
“Tskhinvali has become the Stalingrad of the Caucusus,” Kokoity said at a joint news conference. Watch more on withdrawal of Russian troops »
Kokoity and Bagapsh decried criticism of Russia’s invasion in the Western media and among European leaders, saying Moscow was defending their people and cities from Georgian forces.
Lavrov told the radio station Echo of Moscow that “De facto territorial integrity of Georgia is limited because of the conflict.”
“This problem can be solved only through [the] search for mutual solutions.”
Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili suggested Russia invaded his country to establish control over the former Soviet republic, where a major oil pipeline passes through. View a map of the region »
“The fact that the biggest number of bombs fell on purely economic and civilian targets clearly indicated that was a premeditated thing and it had nothing to do only with Abkhazia or South Ossetia,” Saakashvili said at a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He questioned why Russia attacked Georgia’s oil pipelines which, Saakashvili said, “don’t have any military significance.”
“Why would one attack them unless there is some other purpose?”
Erdogan’s visit to Georgia is part of a flurry of diplomacy aimed at stemming the Georgia-Russia conflict, which erupted last week.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who has expressed his deep concern about the situation, has sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to meet with European Union leaders in France Thursday. She will then head to Tbilisi. Watch Bush pledge “unwavering support” for Georgia »
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, acting as the president of the European Union, negotiated Tuesday’s cease-fire, which called for Russia and U.S. ally Georgia to return their forces to the positions they held August 6, before Georgia’s crackdown on South Ossetia.
However, Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Russian troops were moving back into the Black Sea port city of Poti, where the Russians had bombed targets including a military installation and ships.
Russian peacekeeping troops were also in the western Georgian city of Zugdidi, just outside Abkhazia. Video showed the Russians — clearly wearing the blue helmets which signify their peacekeeper status — at the official government residence in the town.
U.S. officials said it believed Russia may have 15,000 or more troops in the region, between 5,000 and 7,000 more than when the fighting began.
Lavrov said Russia’s operations were about “peace-enforcement” in respect of Georgia, which “violates all of its obligations.”
International agreements signed in the early 1990s allow Russian peacekeepers to maintain a presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of a force including Georgians and South Ossetians. Watch more on Russia’s possible ambitions »
Meanwhile, BP confirmed Thursday that it had resumed pumping gas into its South Caucaus pipeline. The line runs from Baku in Azerbijan, through Tblisi in Georgia to Erzurum in Turkey. The Western Route oil export pipeline, which runs from Baku to Supsa, Georgia, on the Black Sea, remained shut.
BP shut down the two pipelines Tuesday morning as a “precaution” during the fighting.The conflict began late last week when Georgia launched a military incursion into South Ossetia in an effort to rout rebels.
Russia — which supports the separatists — responded the next day, sending tanks across the border into South Ossetia. The conflict quickly spread to parts of Georgia and to Abkhazia.