Judgement day dawns after Russia pledges to quit Georgia

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The Independent Online

The moment of truth on Russia's intentions in Georgia comes today when, according to President Dmitry Medvedev, his forces will start pulling out of the parts of the country it has occupied. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, also faced one of the toughest diplomatic missions of her career when she arrived in Tbilisi yesterday to hold Russia to its side of the ceasefire and prop up the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The Russian leader told French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the ceasefire, that troops and armour will reposition from Georgia proper to the borders of the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The situation on the ground remained confused with Russian commanders saying that Russian soldiers will withdraw, but would be replaced by Russian "peacekeepers". At the same time Georgian officials were refused permission to return to the city of Gori, held by the Russians.

Alexander Lomaia, secretary to the Georgian National Security Council, said: "This is just a redeployment. They have pulled out of their bases but they are still all over the place, you can see that. It doesn't matter which uniforms the Russians wear." The Georgian government claimed that instead of retreating, Russian troops were retrenching inside Georgia and "hundreds" of Abkhaz irregulars had moved in.

President Saakashvili said in a press conference with Chancellor Merkel: "They have continued aggression, taken over new areas and have mined new bridges. Russian generals have told us they have two options, they can withdraw or advance to the capital. They are still waiting for orders on what course to take."

The Georgian leader continued: "We shall defend the capital, most of our forces are intact and most of our weapons are intact."

However, Georgian troops had fled Gori merely at reports that the Russians were coming and large amounts of American-supplied arms and ammunition have been seized by the Russians.

Ms Merkel said the cease-fire terms made it clear that the Russian forces should pull back. "The cease-fire was signed by President Medvedev on Saturday and this must happen in the next few days."

In Paris, President Sarkozy said the Russians would "face serious consequences" if they failed to honour the truce agreement, without specifying what these consequences may be. And US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia had already broken its ceasefire commitment by the continued presence of its troops in Georgia.

The Russian officer in command at Gori, General Vyacheslav Borisov, said he was opening the road into the city for aid to get through. But UN officials said only a trickle of supplies were arriving.

Gori is mainly deserted with up to 80 per cent of the population fleeing the city. A Russian soldier at a checkpoint just outside the city said: "We are here to maintain order. "I think we will be in Georgia for a very long time."

Groups of refugees were still making their way towards the capital Tbilisi from Georgian enclaves in South Ossetia and villages around Gori, where Ossetian, Chechen and Cossack paramilitaries had been responsible for killings, looting and burning.

Nino Chikladze, who had fled Avnevi in South Ossetia with his 68-year-old mother, wife and five children, said: "They have stolen everything and burnt the houses. They are killing young men, saying they are Georgian soldiers, when the men were just farmers."

Irakli Marashvilli said his aunt and uncle are terrified but too old to leave their village north of Gori.

"They think they will be killed any day now. The international people must do something," he said.