Russia begins military pullout but freezes NATO relations

While the military stand-off between Russia and Georgia appeared to ease with Russia beginning its first substantial troop pullout from its neighbour Thursday, the diplomatic rift between Moscow and the West over the conflict deepened with the Kremlin freezing ties with NATO, dpa reported.

As troops of Russia's 58th Army were leaving the area around the northern Georgian town of Gori, the Russian army also said 18 checkpoints at roads and rail lines - totalling 1,000 troops and referred to as "peacekeepers" by Moscow - would remain in Georgia's breakaway region South Ossetia and Georgia proper even after the withdrawal.

Witnesses confirmed Russian road checkpoints had been kept in place even though Russian tanks and personnel carriers were moving north from Gori. Russian forces were still holding the central towns of Zugdidi and Senaki, and only civilians were allowed to pass checkpoints.

Russian efforts to destroy Georgian military capacity also continued around Gori with a powerful blast reported near the village Osiauri, site of a Georgian army base, the civil.georgia news site said. The incidence followed days of Russian forces blowing up ammunition and army equipment, according to witnesses.

However, in the west of Georgia, Russian ground forces were said to have evacuated the area of the port of Poti, according to Moscow a move to prepare for reboarding Russian warships offshore.

Russian vice chief of general staff Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said that, apart from the remaining "peacekeepers, all Russian forces would return to Russian territory by the end of Friday." Russian warships on Georgia's Black Sea coast would also return to their Sevastopol base in Ukraine, a fleet officer said.

However, as Russian troops were increasingly preparing to leave Georgia after days of delays that prompted widespread international criticism, the diplomatic situation worsened with Russia putting relations with NATO on ice.

"We have received formal notifications via military channels that Russia has decided to halt international military cooperation events until further notice," NATO deputy spokeswoman Carmen Romero told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in Brussels.

Moscow's announcement - which affects 10 joint exercises - came two days after the Western military alliance had slapped Moscow by deciding to tighten ties with Georgia, paving the way for Georgia's entry to NATO which is fiercely opposed by Moscow.

Neither side went as far as slamming the door completely, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisting both NATO and Russia relied on mutual cooperation.

However, reasserting Moscow's confidence towards the West, he added in comments quoted by the news agency Interfax in the Black Sea resort of Sochi that "NATO is much more in need of Russia's support of its military actions in Afghanistan, where NATO's fate appears to be in the balance."

The standoff in the Caucasus was also facing a further escalation as the Russian parliament prepared to meet in an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss whether to recognize the independence of Abkhazia, Georgia's second breakaway region, which appealed to Moscow Wednesday.

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

Moscow made clear Thursday it expected NATO to redress its "priorities" following the alliance's strong criticism earlier this week of Russia's military incursion in Georgia. Moscow has repeatedly said NATO was biased against it in the row over South Ossetia.

"Everything depends on NATO priorities: the priority is for unconditional support of (Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili), then we won't be to blame for the bankrupting of the alliance's relations with Russia," Lavrov said Thursday.

Russia also accused the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Thursday of covering up Georgia's military preparations ahead of its offensive to re-take South Ossetia,

The OSCE had been "notified by the Georgian side that there would be an invasion, but did not warn Russian peacekeepers," Nogovitsyn said, adding: "This fact makes us reconsider our relations." The OSCE "must answer" for failing in its obligations, he said.

Meanwhile, the controversy with Russia over the breakaway republics drew fresh international comments, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, current head of the EU presidency, saying France would not recognize Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence.

Russia was trying to cite Kosovo independence for the Caucasian territories, he said, but insisted the ceasefire brokered by Paris was focussing on an international discussion about security and stability in the region.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a meeting with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev in Sochi, supported Moscow and said "we understand the essence of the Russian position and its military response. We believe Russia was responding to the Georgian provocation."

The Syrian leader likened the conflict in the Caucasus to the Mideast conflict, and noted that Russia supported the start of a dialogue with Israel.

Hamas' Damascus-based political chief Khaled Mashaal also said the militant Palestinian movement supported Russia in its actions against Georgia in an address to Palestinian officials and representatives from Syria's Baath Party in Damascus.

Turkey, on the other hand, decided after days of reluctance, to allow US Navy ships to pass through Turkish-controlled waters to bring medical supplies to Georgia through the Bosporus Straits connecting the Mediterranean with the Black Sea.

Controversy had previously arisen over whether the US had made a formal request for passage for the US Navy ships Comfort and Mercy under the terms of a decades-old maritime treaty.

Ankara, nervous of a Cold-War type confrontation between the US and Russia, had dragged its heels in allowing the military vessels through.

In Eastern Europe, the ongoing tension with Moscow on Thursday brought an extra poignancy to Czech and Slovak commemorations of the so-called Prague Spring 40 years ago, when Soviet tanks crushed their movement for reform and democracy with brute force.

The conflict with Moscow over South Ossetia shifted public opinion towards approval of a US missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic, previously opposed by many people in both countries.

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