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Europe

Russia Retains Control Over Georgian Port as Tensions Increase

Russian forces were still deployed deep inside Georgia Saturday, Aug. 22, keeping their grip on a strategic port city, as Moscow continued to brush aside Western accusations it was failing to abide by a ceasefire deal.

A Russian soldier sits aboard an armored vehicle on the road to the border of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia

Not home yet: Some Russian troops have pulled out but many remain in Georgia

Russia withdrew tanks, artillery and hundreds of troops from the heart of Georgia on Friday, saying it had now fulfilled all obligations under a French-brokered agreement aimed at ending the two-week-old conflict.

But Russian troops were still controlling access to the western port of Poti and also established a checkpoint just 10 kilometers (seven miles) north of the key city of Gori, correspondents on the ground said.

Britain, France and the United States have urged further withdrawals but a top Russian general rejected the Western criticism.

"All activities of the Russian peacekeeping contingent are based on the six principles that were signed in agreement by the presidents of Russia and France," said General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy chief of staff, in Moscow.

He said Russian troops would patrol and keep control over Poti, Georgia's main commercial port.

Russian troops first poured into Georgia on August 8 to repel a Georgian assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia, smashing the country's small US-trained army.

They then fanned out through Abkhazia, another pro-Moscow breakaway region, and far into the Georgian heartland.

Russian soldiers backed up by four tanks were still in place on a bridge on the road heading from Poti to the city of Senaki further west and Batumi to the south, an AFP news agency correspondent reported.

Port and security checkpoints still manned by Russians

Russian troops ride on an armoured vehicles during a search operation outside of the Black Sea port of Poti

Russian troops are still in evidence around the port of Poti

Some 500 Georgians expressed outrage over the continued presence of Russian troops in Poti, going up to the post waving Georgian flags and shouting "Russians go home".

"They want to keep these checkpoints, as we know, but they have no legal basis for it," Georgian National Security Council secretary Alexander Lomaia told the AFP news agency.

Two Russian armored vehicles and lorries were Saturday still controlling a checkpoint in the village of Karaleti outside Gori on the road to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

The troops, whose uniform was marked with the insignia of peacekeepers, were not letting traffic further north without Russian military accreditation. They had erected concrete roadblocks and fenced off the area with razor-wire.

Georgian police on Friday retook control of Gori and by Saturday afternoon there were no Russian checkpoints remaining on the east-west highway between Tbilisi and the central city of Khashuri.

Full control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Karte Kaukasus Georgien mit den Teilrepubliken Abchasien und Südossetien englisch

Moscow retains full control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and says it has the right to establish an "area of responsibility" far beyond taking in stretches of the highway linking Tbilisi to Poti.

But the ex-Soviet republic's Western backers told Moscow overnight that it was violating the peace accord.

US President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed during a telephone conversation that "Russia is not in compliance and that Russia needs to come into compliance now," a White House spokesman said.

Bush and Sarkozy called on Russia to "continue and complete" its withdrawal from Georgia, a statement from the French presidency added.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also said he was "deeply concerned" and urged Russia to stick "fully and speedily" to its obligations.

The speedy military victory over Georgia, which is pressing for membership of NATO, stunned Western powers and since then the United States and NATO have ratcheted up pressure on Russia.

NATO naval exercise increases tension

NATO HQ in Brussels

NATO says the exercise was planned well before the crisis

The latest focus of international tension was the Black Sea, where NATO naval exercises are taking place and a US destroyer was due to arrive in Georgia with what the Pentagon says are humanitarian aid supplies.

Nogovitsyn accused NATO of boosting its naval presence "under the cover of delivering humanitarian goods," pointing to the entrance of German, Spanish and Polish frigates into the Black Sea. NATO says the exercises were long pre-planned.

With its army humiliated and Russian troops openly shielding the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia looks increasingly unlikely to recover its territory.

Nogovitsyn warned the United States that Russia could beef up its "peacekeeping" forces in Georgia if Washington helps Tbilisi rebuild its army.

South Ossetia's separatist leader Eduard Kokoity was expected in Moscow on Saturday to present a demand for recognition of independence, ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

Russia's two houses of parliament were due Monday to discuss appeals from South Ossetia and Abkhazia for recognition from Moscow, a move that would likely exacerbate the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.

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