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Russia says withdrawal from Georgia underway, but troops remain

Russian tanks and troops moved freely around the Georgian city of Gori on Monday and appeared to be moving toward the capital despite Russia's announcement that it had begun a withdrawal from the conflict zone.

Russian tanks and troops moved freely around the Georgian city of Gori on Monday and appeared to be moving toward the capital despite Russia's announcement that it had begun a withdrawal from the conflict zone.

The movements, which drew harsh criticism from the United States on Monday, are raising questions about whether Russia is fulfilling its side of a ceasefire intended to end days of fierce fighting.

"It didn't take that long for the Russian forces to get in, and it really shouldn't take that long for them to get out," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday, as she flew to an emergency NATO meeting in Brussels.

Russian troops have controlled a wide swath of Georgia for days, after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia when Georgia tried to retake control of the region.

Russia, which had peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, then sent in thousands of reinforcements, driving out Georgian forces there and in the Russian-backed separatist region of Abkhazia.

Under a European Union-brokered peace plan signed by both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, both sides are to pull forces back to positions held before the outbreak.

The deputy chief of the Russian general staff, Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told a briefing in Moscow Monday afternoon that: "Today, according to the peace plan, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers and reinforcements has begun." He added that troops were in the process of leaving Gori.

Nogovitsyn said the Russian troops were pulling back to South Ossetia and a security zone defined by a 1999 agreement of the "joint control commission," which oversaw conflict resolution in South Ossetia after it broke away from Georgia in 1992. Georgian and Russian officials could not immediately clarify the dimensions of the security zone.

BBC quoted Nogovitsyn as saying that Russia had agreed to a pullback to the territory of South Ossetia, but not a withdrawal of Russian troops.

"We are talking about pulling back to the territory of South Ossetia. There should be no troops on the territory of Georgia," he was cited as saying.

'The Russians have not withdrawn'

But media reports indicated Russian forces were not showing any sign of moving out and instead appeared to be solidifying their positions around the central Georgian city of Gori earlier in the day.

"So far we haven't seen anyone pulling out. The Russian tanks and troops are still around Gori," the CBC's Alexandra Szacka reported from the strategic city, which sits on Georgia's main east-west road.

Szacka said she spoke with Russian soldiers, who appeared relaxed and said they didn't know yet when they would be pulling out.

The Associated Press reported that four Russian armoured personnel carriers, each carrying about 15 people, rolled Monday afternoon from Gori to Igoeti, a crossroads town even closer to the capital of Tbilisi.

"The Russians have not withdrawn," said Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia.

Georgia's Rustavi-2 television showed footage of what appeared to be Russian armoured vehicles smashing through a group of Georgian police cars barricading a road. The station reported the incident took place Monday in Ogoeti.

Emergency meeting called for NATO members

The United States called an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's foreign ministers for Tuesday to review the alliance's worsening relations with Russia following the military intervention in Georgia.

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'Full withdrawal will take a long time because there's little chance that Russian forces will leave the breakaway regions until there's international clarity on their legal status.'

—Bard29

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The military alliance plans to consider a range of upcoming activities planned with Russia, including military exercises and ministerial meetings, to decide whether to go ahead with them.

Ministers will also discuss support for a planned international monitoring mission in the region and a package of support for Georgia.

Rice said the U.S. and its NATO allies will not allow Russia to build another Iron Curtain in Europe, as it did during the Cold War. She lashed out at Russia for intimidating Georgia and other states like the Ukraine, and she also criticized Russia for resuming air patrols off the coast of Alaska.

"This is a very dangerous game and perhaps one the Russians want to reconsider," Rice said.

Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, urged NATO to be fair as it considers the Russia-Georgia crisis.

"We hope that tomorrow's decisions by NATO will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era," he said Monday.

Russia has been considered a NATO partner since 1997. Neither Russia nor Georgia are full members of NATO, although Georgia, considered a Western ally, is bidding to join the alliance.

Russia moves missile launcher in: report

The Associated Press reported that a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity Monday, said intelligence shows the Russian military has moved several SS-21 missile launchers into South Ossetia, putting them in range of Georgia's capital of Tbilisi.

Such a move would allow Russia to pull out of Georgia as promised, but punish Tbilisi at any moment with the threat of using the weapon.

Experts said such a weapon system was used in October 1999, when missiles slammed into the Chechen capital of Grozny and killed at least 140 people.

U.S. Defence Department spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to confirm the report of the missile launchers because it involves intelligence, but said such positioning would be prohibited by the ceasefire that Russia agreed to.

"Anything such as that, or any other military equipment that was moved in, would be in violation of the ceasefire and should be removed immediately," Whitman said.

Nogovitsyn also disputed the claim, saying Russia "sees no necessity" to place SS-21s in the region.

Russia hands out medals to soldiers

In the North Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz, near the Georgian border, the Russian president handed out medals Monday to 30 soldiers and servicemen involved in the conflict, heralding them as heroes.

"It has been only 10 days since you faced a cowardly aggression," Medvedev said, standing on a drill square in front of camouflage-clad soldiers and officers.

"I am sure that such a well-done, effective and peacemaking operation aimed at protecting our citizens and other people will be among the most glorious deeds of the Russian military," he said.

Medvedev has said withdrawing Russian forces would move toward South Ossetia, but he stopped short of promising they would return to Russia.

Meanwhile on Monday, Eduard Kokoity, the separatist leader of South Ossetia, said he would ask Russia to set up a military base there while also declaring he would not allow international observers into the territory.

Russia said hundreds of civilians, many of them Russian citizens, were killed in the Georgian bombardment of South Ossetia during its offensive against the secessionist region. However, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia of ethnic cleansing in its military response.

Aid agencies have estimated there are about 80,000 internally displaced people who have fled the conflict zones and taken shelter in and around Tbilisi.

Most of South Ossetia has been under the control of an internationally unrecognized separatist government since 1992. The region has close ties with Russia, and almost all of its 70,000 residents have Russian passports.

Georgia is a nation of about 4.5 million people in the Caucasus region, bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea. It regained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

With files from the Associated Press

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