Georgia signs peace deal

Friday 15 August 2008 18:05 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The United States demanded today that Russian troops end their occupation of Georgia immediately after Georgia signed a ceasefire agreement.

Speaking alongside Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice evoked the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia 40 years ago to crush liberal reforms: "Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once. This is no longer 1968."

Saakashvili said following five hours of talks with Rice he had inked the ceasefire pact, negotiated by France on behalf of the European Union.

As they were speaking, a Reuters correspondent witnessed a column of up to 17 Russian armoured personnel carriers advancing along the main highway to within 34 miles of the Georgian capital, their deepest move yet inside Georgia.

The purpose of the incursion was not immediately clear.

Saakashvili, in passionate remarks, denounced Russians as "21st century barbarians" and blamed the West for triggering the crisis by failing to react firmly to Moscow's previous military moves and not admitting Georgia to Nato fast enough.

"Who invited the trouble here?" he said, flanked by several large Georgian and US flags. "...Not only those people who perpetrated this, but those who failed to stop it."

The simmering crisis over the rebel Georgian region of South Ossetia exploded last Thursday when Georgia sent a force to try to retake the Russian-backed province, provoking a massive counter-attack by Moscow.

The Kremlin deployed warships, planes, tanks and troops against Georgia in its biggest military operation outside its borders since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Its troops continue to occupy part of Georgia, although combat has ceased.

Signs multiplied today of Russia's growing international isolation. Its biggest trading partner Germany condemned it for going too far in Georgia and neighbouring Poland sealed a pact with Washington to host part of an anti-missile system.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev showed defiance after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, several hundred miles along the coast from the conflict zone.

He said Moscow would respond the same way if its peacekeepers were attacked again and questioned whether the rebel regions at the centre of the conflict could ever live again under Georgian rule.

Medvedev denounced the Polish-US deal as a threat to Russia. "The deployment of new anti-missile forces has as its aim the Russian Federation," he told a news conference alongside Merkel.

"Therefore any fairy tales about deterring other states, fairy tales that with the help of this system, we will deter some sort of rogue states, no longer work."

But US President George Bush said Moscow's decision to send in troops had hurt its credibility overseas.

"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century," he said in Washington before departing for a holiday in Texas.

Merkel also called on the Kremlin to pull its forces out of central Georgia and implement the French-led peace plan.

"We very much want the six-point plan to be implemented very promptly so that Russian troops are no longer in Georgia, outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia," she told the joint news conference with Medvedev.

Pressure from Berlin is significant because Moscow generally regards it as a more sympathetic partner than former Cold War foes London and Washington.

The conflict has rattled oil markets because a key pipeline runs through Georgia. It has also unnerved the West, which fears the conflict could easily escalate in the volatile region.

Even Russia's normally reliable allies in parts of the former Soviet Union have remained mostly silent on the issue. Many are uneasy about military intervention by the Kremlin in its former vassals.

Russia says its actions are fully justified by Georgia's "aggression" and "genocide" in attacking South Ossetia last week, where many residents hold Russian passports.

It maintains its troops must stay on the ground in Georgia to secure the situation and prevent further conflict. Russian ground forces are mainly based around the central town of Gori, 40 miles west of the Georgian capital.

The two sides traded accusations today of misconduct in the war zone. Georgia quoted a US human rights group alleging that Russia had used cluster bombs against civilians - a charge denied by Russia - while Moscow accused Tbilisi's troops of planting mines in civilian areas as they retreated.

In Moscow, the General Staff said at its daily news briefing that there had been no shooting in the past 24 hours.

The United Nations has expressed alarm at lawlessness in war-torn areas. Witnesses in the area have seen Ossetian militiamen attacking villages and stealing cars.

Refugees told of a lawless zone in the villages running north from Gori to Tskhinvali, the devastated capital of South Ossetia taken by Russian forces after heavy fighting.

"Many people have been burned alive in their homes," said an old Georgian woman in Gori, pulling a trolley piled with bags.

Russian soldiers near Gori - some lounging in the midday sun, others manning tanks and armoured personnel carriers - looked bored today as they denied reports of looting.

"We're the regular army," said Vita, wiping sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his camouflage uniform. "There's no violence, no looting. All is quiet."

Russia says 1,600 civilians died when Georgia attacked South Ossetia, though the figure has not been independently verified.

Moscow's General Staff has said it lost 74 soldiers in the fighting, with 171 wounded and 19 missing. At least four warplanes have been shot down.

Georgia puts deaths on its side at over 175, with hundreds injured. That figure does not include South Ossetia.

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