Russia tells UN its troops will stay in South Ossetia

Russia said Saturday its military forces will remain in the Georgian breakaway enclave of South Ossetia to protect ethnic Russians, while the United Nations said fighting has also spread to Abkhazia, another separatist province, dpa reported.

Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters following a closed-door session of the 15-nation Security Council that Moscow has political and humanitarian reasons to remain in South Ossetia. He claimed fighting since Thursday has killed some 2,000 civilians and made more than 30,000 refugees, many of whom had fled into Russia.

" Russia will not pull out," Churkin said. "In order for us to withdraw we have to make sure there won't be genocide there. This is a grave matter."

Churkin rejected calls for a ceasefire, saying it would not be the right solution while fighting was raging. He called instead for Georgian troops to withdraw from South Ossetia, saying the capital Tskhinvali has been destroyed by Georgian rocket fire.

"Several council members asked what the Security Council should do," Churkin said. " Georgia must withdraw from South Ossetia territory it took over in a military aggression, and accept the non- use of force agreement, which we have urged them to do in the past years."

Churkin also accused the council of falling behind in the events in Georgia and said some of its members, whom he did not name, were procrastinating on drafting a formal statement by the council regarding the fighting.

"Now the situation has come to another stage," Churkin said. "The key element is the withdrawal of Georgia from South Ossetia."

Council president, Ambassador Jan Grauls of Belgium, told reporters that the fast changing situation on the ground in Georgia would now make it difficult for the council to agree on a common position.

He said several council members called for a ceasefire, while other expressed grave concern over the fighting and its impacts on the civilian population.

The council was convened to discuss the situation and was told by UN special envoy for Georgia, Robert Mullet, that fighting has spread to Abkhazia, which has demanded secession from Tbilisi. Abkhazia, like South Ossetia, is inhabited by a sizable population of Russians and Moscow has maintained a peacekeeping there.

Mullet told the council that Abkhazia was mobilizing troops and had asked the small unit of 15 UN peacekeepers to pull out of the disputed Upper Kodori Valley, which it did on Saturday. The UN troops have moved to Sukumi where it is safer.

"There had been a marked escalation of military activities in South Ossetia and beyond and events on the ground had deteriorated in the past 24 hours," Grauls said.

"Because of the rapidly changing situation on the ground and given the nature of the conflict and bilateral consultations, it is regrettable to conclude that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a common ground for a statement by the council," Grauls said.

Grauls said the divided council still has a role to play and it will continue to assess the situation in the coming days.

The council on Friday began discussion aimed at issuing a common position, but Russia was opposed to any language in the draft statement that would call for parties in the conflict to renounce the use of force.

Saturday's closed-door session did not include Georgia's UN Ambasador Irakli Alasania, who on Friday urged the council to use its authority to end the fighting, saying his country was ready to negotiate a ceasefire if Russia would immediately withdraw its troops from Georgian territory.

Alasania accused Russia of mounting a "full-scale military invasion" of Georgia with tanks and combat troops, backed by airstrikes.

Moscow had accused Georgia of violating an agreement that ended fighting in South Ossetia in 1996 by attacking the breakaway region. South Ossetia had declared independence from Tbilisi, which opposed it, in the early 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Georgia, a former Soviet republic, had been at odds with Moscow, charging it with interfering in its internal politics. Tbilisi has also been in conflict with Moscow over Abkhazia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported this week that thousands of civilians fled South Ossetia for neighbouring North Ossetia-Alania, in Russia, while hundreds of others have fled to other parts of Georgia.

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