Russia to start Georgia pullout on Monday

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said his country's troops would begin pulling back from their positions in Georgia on Monday.
An aid worker looks on as residents wait for humanitarian aid distributed from a bus in Gori, northwest of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, on Sunday. ((Darko Bandic/Associated Press))
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said his country's troops would begin pulling back from their positions in Georgia on Monday.

The withdrawal plan was disclosed in a phone call to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered a Russian-Georgian ceasefire agreement, the Kremlin said on Sunday

Medvedev said Russian forces would move toward Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia, but he stopped short of promising they would return to Russia. He also gave no firm deadline for completion of the withdrawal.

Observers believe Russia could maintain a sizeable force in South Ossetia, fuelling speculation that Moscow could seek to eventually annex the region.

The ceasefire plan calls for both sides to pull back to positions they held just over a week ago, before the fighting began.

The province is at the heart of a conflict between the two countries that erupted in violence earlier this month when the Georgian government launched an assault to take back control of the Russian-backed territory.

Russia said hundreds of civilians, many of them Russian citizens, were killed in the Georgian bombardment. However, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accuses Russia of ethnic cleansing.

During a joint news conference Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Saakashvili cited reports of looting and attacks on Georgians by separatist militia in recent days.

"They are throwing people out of their houses. And they are not only doing that, but they acknowledge that they are doing that, and they are doing ethnic cleansing," he said.

He also called for international monitoring of the pullout.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak while meeting in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Sunday. ((Shakh Aivazov/Associated Press))

On Friday, U.S. President George W. Bush said the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are officially recognized as part of Georgia even if their sympathies lie with Moscow.

But on Sunday, Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, the secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, disagreed.

"The political future of South Ossetia is by definition for the South Ossetians to determine. They live in a difficult context. They have to take into account the facts of history, the facts of geography, the realities of today's world," he said.

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

"David Womble, Georgia's national director for World Vision, said those involved in the aid effort are running out of spaces for them.

"They're literally occupying almost every available building, including schools and kindergartens. And the school year starts on Sept. 1, so it's going to be an issue in the next two weeks," he said.