Stand-off as Russia delays Georgia withdrawal

Russia says withdrawal from Georgia won't begin for days and takes Georgian troops prisoners while commandeering US military vehicles
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The Independent Online

Russia is keeping up the suspense over its withdrawal from Georgia, despite Nato foreign ministers warning that future relations between the Kremlin and the western alliance depend on its compliance with a peace plan that calls for an immediate pullout by Russian forces.

A column of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles left the central Georgian town of Gori today in the first sign of a pullback, but Russian officials said the main withdrawal demanded by the West would not happen for three more days. Six Russian armoured personnel carriers, three tanks and two other vehicles started their engines and drove out, heading for the Russian city of Vladikavkaz on the other side of the Caucasus mountains.

"This is one of the first units to be pulled out," said an official from Russia’s foreign ministry, which arranged for reporters to watch the column leave.

Nato foreign ministers, at a crisis meeting in Brussels, linked the future of the alliance’s relations with Moscow to the pullout of troops from Georgia, and warned that “there can be no business as usual under present circumstances.”

Speaking after the meeting, the Nato secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said: "The future of our relations will depend on the concrete actions Russia will take to honour the words of President (Dmitry) Medvedev to abide by the six-point peace plan, which is not happening at the moment."

The Nato ministers decided to suspend meetings of the Nato-Russia council, a consultative body set up in 2002, as long as Russian troops remained in Georgia. Nato was “considering seriously the implications of Russia’s actions for the Nato-Russia relationship,” said a statement issued by the 26-member alliance.

But they also risked angering Moscow by agreeing to further strengthen relations with Tbilisi by creating a special consultative body to help it prepare to join. Such a body has already been set up for Ukraine. And the foreign ministers reiterated support for eventual Nato membership for both Georgia and Ukraine.

Russia continued to send out mixed signals about its withdrawal intentions. But in the most alarming development, Russian soldiers took about 20 Georgian troops prisoner in the Black Sea port of Poti. The Georgians were blindfold and held at gunpoint. They also commandeered four Humvees which were awaiting shipment back to the United States after being used in joint Georgia-US military exercises.

Washington backs the pro-western government of Mikheil Saakashvili who ordered his forces to attempt to recover the breakaway territory of South Ossetia in an attack on 8 August, which prompted the overwhelming Russian fightback. The ceasefire plan – which provides for both sides to withdraw to their pre-war positions - was brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy after six days of fighting.

The deputy head of Russia’s general staff, Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said in Moscow that Russian forces plan to remain in Poti until a local administration is formed, but did not elaborate. He also justified seizures of Georgian soldiers as a necessary crackdown on soldiers who were "acting without command."

An Associated Press television crew has seen Russian troops in and around Poti for days, with local port officials saying the Russians had destroyed radar, boats and other Coast Guard equipment there.

In other developments, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, is on his way to Georgia for talks with President Saakashvili. He left Brussels for Tbilisi after the Nato meeting which demanded “full respect for the principles of Georgia’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Mr de Hoop Scheffer said this referred to the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia which he stressed were recognised by Moscow as part of Georgia. However there was no talk of possible sanctions against Moscow if the Russian military continues to stall on the withdrawal.