Georgia says Russia troops blocking refugee return

Georgia Materials 30 August 2008 20:22 (UTC +04:00)

Russian troops deep inside Georgian territory are stopping thousands of refugees from returning to their homes, a Georgian official said on Saturday.

Russian troops were still manning checkpoints in Georgia and patrolling a Black Sea port even after Moscow pulled back much of the force it deployed to crush Georgia's attempt to take back two separatist provinces.

Moscow has since recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, drawing a storm of criticism from Western governments. They say the Russian presence in Georgia's heartland amounts to a partial occupation.

Russia sent in troops and armour three weeks ago after its pro-Western neighbour Georgia sent in troops in a failed attempt to retake South Ossetia. Moscow said the move was needed to prevent a "genocide" of civilians by Georgia.

The governor of Gori, a Georgian city occupied by Russian forces during the brief conflict, said Russian soldiers still occupied nearby Georgian villages and preventing residents from returning home.

"The Russians have checkpoints and we still cannot bring these people back home. The threat of paramilitary, irregulars, looting and robbing is still very high," Governor Lado Vardzelashvili said.

"Apparently the Russian military are not willing to prevent these kind of cases."

Russia says it is within its rights under a ceasefire to maintain peacekeepers in a buffer zone outside the rebel areas, a point disputed by EU president France which brokered the deal.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown discussed the agreement on Saturday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin said, before a EU summit in Brussels designed to formulate the European Union's response to Russia's actions.

Medvedev told Brown why Moscow had recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia and said Russia was complying with the ceasefire accord which "fully retained its value", the Kremlin said.

A British spokesman in said: "We are not going to be drawn on the details of that conversation. The next step will be the European Council meeting on Monday.", Reuters reported.