Moscow delays pullout, moves to recognize rebel regions

Georgia Materials 20 August 2008 20:54 (UTC +04:00)

Moscow moved toward recognizing the independence of Georgia's rebel regions amid conflicting claims over civilian deaths in the Georgian conflict and international anger over Russia's prolonged occupation of the former Soviet state, dpa reported.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy that all but a 500-strong contingent of peacekeepers would leave Georgian soil by Friday, but Russian troops appeared Wednesday to be digging into their positions in two Georgian enclaves.

Russian troops held checkpoints throughout Georgia's Gori region blocking official Georgian vehicles, while Russian naval infantry were in control of Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti and a key transport highway for oil pipeline shipments through the country.

A Deutsche Presse-Agentur journalist in the region spoke of explosions and reports suggesting the Russian military was continuing the demolition of equipment at Georgian military bases.

Western criticism of Russia's delayed pullout boiled over at the United Nations on Wednesday as Moscow blocked demands for an immediate and full withdrawal of its forces.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted in the International Herald Tribune slamming Russia for not acting on repeated promises to pull out: "We cannot accept this kind of blindness, not accepting international law."

Moscow shot back at criticism by freezing all military cooperation with NATO on Wednesday after the alliance issued a strongly-worded rebuke of Russia's conduct in the bloody 10-day war over Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed NATO's statement as "one-sided" and "bias," charging the alliances readiness to discuss membership for Georgia was a continuation of Cold War containment policy.

The vice speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, meanwhile, said the body would meet in an emergency session Monday to review recognition of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Federation Council speaker said lawmakers were "ready" to recognize the provinces minutes after the Abkhaz parliament lodged its formal appeal on Wednesday.

Mironov said the council "is ready to recognise the independent status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," but added such a move would required the Kremlin's stamp of approval.

Medvedev has said Russia would support any decision taken by the breakaway region, raising red flags in Washington and Tbilisi where officials refused to consider redrawing the Georgian territorial map.

Both rebel regions have held de facto autonomy since winning a war of succession from Georgia in the early 1990s, but while South Ossetians would like to unite with the ethnically-linked Russian region to the north, Abkhazia is lobbying to be recognized as an independent country.

Deliberate moves by Moscow to tighten ties with the rebel governments of both regions in recent months severely aggravated tensions that exploded in the short bloody war in South Ossetia.

But Moscow's claims that its troops halted a Georgian genocide of the civilian population of 70,000 in South Ossetia were unsubstantiated Wednesday as authorities released the first official list of dead since the start of fighting 10 days ago.

A Russian investigative committee in South Ossetia said 133 people have been registered killed in the conflict with Georgia, gving weight to suspicions that the 2,100 civilian death claim by South Ossetians had been highly exaggerated.

Anna Neistat of rights organization Human Rights Watch said such "exaggerated" counts had fueled ethnic revenge attacks against Georgian villages.

Hundreds of Georgian civilians have fled South Ossetia in the aftermath of the war, and journalists in the region reported Wednesday that their burned villages were being demolished by bulldozers brought in as part of the Russian reconstruction effort in the devastated separatists region.