Russia will start pulling out troops on Monday – Medvedev

Russia will begin withdrawing its army from the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict zone on Monday, according to President Dmitry Medvedev. It means troops will return to the positions they held before the outbreak of fight

Medvedev announced the pledge after holding telephone talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The troops will return to the positions in South Ossetia and the security zone that they held before the outbreak of fighting, and as defined in a 1999 agreement.

The need for a Russian pull-out from Georgian territory was emphasised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during talks with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in Tbilisi.

She also said international peacekeepers should be brought into the region.

“We should manage very promptly to bring international peacekeepers to the region. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed. We need to reach refugees, we need to maintain a humanitarian corridor and also give them a possibility of returning in peace back to their homes. We also need to discuss the deployment of international peacekeeping forces in the region as the European Union and Germany are ready to contribute to this, but we need negotiations,” Angela Merkel said.

The Russian leader also stressed the need for Georgia to return its forces to the agreed positions. The withdrawal of troops is one of the conditions of the French-brokered peace deal.

Nevertheless Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili hasn’t changed his tune. He is still insisting South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia.

“Georgia will never give up any square kilometre of its territory. No matter what happens, we will never reconcile to the fact of annexation or separation of parts of territory from Georgia,” Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili’s words though are not going down well with South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders. They’ve already said several times that they do not want to be in Georgia.

“Despite such an attack on our people, South Ossetians’ yearning for independence remains undeterred. We will continue to seek independence fully abiding by the principles of international law. Our claim is very well founded according to political laws. We are fully aware of our responsibility to the Caucasian peoples because peace is what the Caucasus needs today,” South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity said.

Provocation planned?

The Russian Defence Ministry says it has intelligence that Georgia is planning an act of provocation against its servicemen in the town of Gori.

It believes that Georgians are forming military groups and planning to carry out attacks in the area, dressed in Russian military uniforms.

Six point plan

Earlier all sides signed the six point plan stipulating the non-use of force, withdrawal of troops and free access to humanitarian aid.

The plan contains the main principles designed to resolve the conflict in South Ossetia, worked out at the August 12 meeting between Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili signed the agreement on Friday, during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Tbilisi.

The original document already had the signatures of the leaders of the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But the truce signed by the Georgian leader on Friday lacks an introduction, according to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, though the six principles of the ceasefire plan remained the same.    

“We are somewhat puzzled by the fact that the document Mikhail Saakashvili signed yesterday differs from the one President Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy have agreed in Moscow,” said Lavrov. “We are going to seek explanation on this matter through diplomatic channels.”

“The document signed by Mikhail Saakashvili completely omits the opening sentence, the introductory part. It is an integral part of the document and when the leaders of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and now Russia have signed the document, they signed an agreed version, not some shortened or edited one,” Lavrov said.

Many call the new version an American edition, as it was the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who brought the document to Tbilisi.

The amendments may put the U.S. in an awkward position with the EU, after all the document was drawn-up by the Russian president and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, acting on behalf of the European Union.

As for the pace of the planned Russian troop withdrawal from Georgia, it would depend on “how extra security measures for the peacekeeping force are being put into practice on the ground,” said Lavrov. He said it’ll take as much time as needed.

“It does not depend on us only because we are constantly coming up against some problems on the Georgian side, and everything depends on how effectively and quickly these problems are solved,” he said.

Meanwhile, President Medvedev has instructed the Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry to begin consultations with the international community, including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He wants to negotiate a possible increase in the number of military observers in South Ossetia.

Both Russian and Georgian troops will now return to the positions they were in before the crisis in the Georgian breakaway republic began.

And as the Russian troops are getting ready for a pull-out, Lavrov warns Moscow expects reciprocal steps from Georgia and other sides in the conflict.

However, Russian peacekeepers would take up additional security measures before an internationally accepted solution to the conflict is found.

Meanwhile, U.S. President George Bush has praised the signing of the peace plan, saying it is a hopeful step in negotiations. Speaking from his ranch in Texas he said Russia should now honour its pledge to end military operations in Georgia.

Bush also reiterated that the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia must remain part of Georgian territory and “there's no room for debate on this matter.”

“Now Russia needs to withdraw its forces – and of course military operations. A major issue is Russia’s contention that the regions of south Ossetia and Abkhazia may not be a part of Georgia’s future. The regions are a part of Georgia. The international community has repeatedly made clear that they will remain so,” Bush said.

Meanwhile, Poland's President Lech Kaczynski has criticised the way France and Germany are handling the crisis between Russia and Georgia. He says Paris and Berlin are too soft on Russia because of their close commercial ties with the country and are not taking into account the positions of newer EU members.

Ukrainian authorities seem to be split over their position. Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko's parliamentary bloc says that Ukraine should not be involved in the crisis on either side and that the dispute has to be resolved within international law. This contradicts the stance of President Yushchenko who appeared with Mikhail Saakashvili at a support rally in Tbilisi.