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Merkel 'watching' Russian withdrawal

Latest update : 2008-08-18

German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly supported Georgia's bid to join NATO in a joint press conference with President Mikheil Saakashvili and warned Russia against further delaying its withdrawal from the country.


Russia announced it would begin withdrawing forces from Georgia on Monday after a war that dealt a humiliating blow to the Black Sea state and raised fears for energy supplies to Europe.


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose failed invasion of the pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia triggered a Russian backlash that shocked the West, called for international monitoring of the pullout.


"I think the world should watch," he told a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Tbilisi. Merkel said the world would indeed be watching for Russia to withdraw quickly under the terms of a six-point peace plan brokered by France.


Russia's Defence Ministry, underlining continued high tension between the two countries, said Georgia was planning a "major provocative act" in the city of Gori, captured by Russian forces on Tuesday as they fanned out from the disputed region into the Georgian heartland.


It said Georgia was forming bands of mercenaries who would be given Russian uniforms and told to loot and pillage.


Georgia issued a swift denial. "Such a provocation would only be staged by the Russian side, with the aim of keeping Russian military units in the conflict zone," the Georgian Interior Ministry said in a statement.


Russian troops remained in position around Gori, which commands the approaches to South Ossetia and the main east-west highway and should be central to covering a Russian withdrawal.


Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov, now a familiar figure touring the area of his command around Gori in a Georgian four-wheel-drive, could not say when he would be moving out.


"We were the first in, so we'll be the last out," Borisov told Reuters at the roadside near Gori.

There was no sign of shooting and troops appeared relaxed.

President Dmitry Medvedev, in announcing the pullout from midday on Monday during a telephone conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, also gave no firm deadline for completion of the withdrawal.


A Georgian official accused Russian forces of destroying Georgian television and radio transmitters in the Gori region and installing their own.


Each side has levelled accusations of attempted genocide against the other. Russia says some 1,600 people were killed in the initial Georgian shelling of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali while Georgia charges Russian and irregular forces levelled Georgian villages around Tskhinvali.


Merkel, in remarks likely to irk the Kremlin, raised the prospect of NATO membership for Georgia, which as a Soviet republic housed Moscow's frontline radar and missile defences.


"Every free, independent country can together with NATO members discuss when it can join NATO. In December we will have a first evaluation of the situation and we are on a clear path in the direction of NATO membership," she said.


Merkel said a buffer zone agreed under the ceasefire should not be used by Russia to extend the territory of South Ossetia, which broke with Tbilisi after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse. "The security zone cannot be used as an excuse for Russian troops not to leave ... Georgia."

The Kremlin confirmed Sarkozy's account of his conversation with Medvedev.

 "From tomorrow, Russia will begin the withdrawal of the military contingent which was moved to reinforce Russian peacekeepers after the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia," the Kremlin said in a statement.


Russia has made clear it sees no prospect in the foreseeable future of South Ossetia being reintegrated into Georgia.


Talks are under way to establish international agreement on a peacekeeping force for the region which seems likely, whatever Georgia's objections, to include a large Russian contingent.


The 10-day confrontation killed around 200 Georgians, dealt a crushing blow to the country's military, damaged its economy, disrupted road and rail links and drew criticism in the West of Saakashvili's handling of the crisis.


The Russian action rattled the West, which transports oil and gas from the Caspian region through pipelines across Georgian territory, a route favoured because it bypasses Russia. Some saw dark portents in Russia launching its first invasion of a former Soviet state.


Russia argued it was justified in intervening to protect South Ossetians, but Moscow also suffered losses, both human and economic. The campaign sent Russian stocks tumbling to their lowest in nearly two years and worried foreign investors.


Date created : 2008-08-17