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Europe

Russia Says Retreat Begins; Georgia Begs to Differ

Russia announced the start of a pullback from Georgia on Monday, but Georgia said it had seen no signs of Russian forces withdrawing. If anything, the foreign ministry said they were broadening their presence.

Russian soldiers ride atop of an armored personnel carrier in Igueti, northwest of the capital Tbilisi, Georgia, Monday, Aug. 18, 2008.

Russian says its troops have begun to withdraw, but Georgia disputes this.

Russia's military announced the start of the departure of Russian forces from Georgia on Monday, August 18.

"The pullout of peacekeeping forces started today," Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nogovizyn told a daily official briefing. "Russia has finished the operation on halting Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia."

Nogovitsyn also said, however, there had been a misunderstanding about President Dmitry Medvedev's promise to his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy about whether Russia would fully withdraw its forces from the Caucasus republic.

"There is a distinction between the understandings of a 'pullback' and a 'withdrawal'.... In the conversation with French President Sarkozy, the discussion was about an pullback of forces, not a withdrawal," he said.

woman is helped up on the outskirts of Gori, northwest of the capital Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, Aug. 15, 2008. Western leaders engaged in intense diplomacy Friday to persuade Russia to pull troops out of Georgia, but regional tensions soared after a top Russian general warned that Poland could face attack over its missile defense deal with the United States. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Georgians have been displaced in the fighting

Russian forces will pull back to the borders of South Ossetia, the Moscow-backed separatist region of Georgia at the center of the conflict, Nogovitsyn added.

He declined to answer a question about how many Russian troops would remain in Georgia, saying: "I am not ready to name any figures."

Georgia disputes pullout report

Nogovizyn said the pullout included Russian troops in Gori, in central Georgia. Reports said the withdrawal initially involved groups of between five and 10 armoured vehicles. They were seen heading toward the Roki tunnel, which connects Russia and Georgia in the Caucasus mountain region of South Ossetia.

However, comments from US and Russian leaders indicate that Moscow may not, in fact, be leaving the area any time soon.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said that Russian forces appeared bent on inflicting as much damage as possible on the Georgian economy.

"There are no signs at all that Russian forces are pulling out," he told Reuters. "Quite the opposite. They are spreading out to other regions." He gave no details.

A top Georgian official also said Russian forces are actually heading deeper into Georgian territory from the central city of Khashuri, despite the pull-out pledge, the AFP news service reported.

Reports of munitions destruction

And Georgia Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said those Russian forces that did appear to be pulling out were leaving a trail of destroyed munitions in their wake.

The Russians were blowing up stores of Georgian ammunition and weaponry at a base near the western town of Senaki ahead of a planned withdrawal from Georgia, Utiashvili said. He also said Moscow's troops had destroyed the runway at the base.

"They are destroying everything and then pulling out of these places," he said. "If they call this a pullout, then I do not understand the meaning of the word."

Missile launchers said moved into region

Moreover, the Russian military has been moving launchers for short-range ballistic missiles into the disputed Caucuses region, American officials told the International Herald Tribune newspaper. The step appears intended to tighten Moscow's hold on the breakaway territory.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev listens in his Kremlin study during a meeting on South Ossetia humanitarian aid issues, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008, Moscow.

Medvedev has vowed to crush opponents

The Russian military deployed several SS-21 missile launchers and supply vehicles to South Ossetia on Friday, according to American officials familiar with intelligence reports. From the new launching positions north of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, the missiles can reach much of Georgia, including Tbilisi, the capital.

CNN news web site reported that the head of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev, said Moscow would completely withdraw only when it was "assured that Georgians would not continue to use military force" in the breakaway regions.

Moscow to leave 'sooner or later,' official says

Russian troops will leave "sooner or later," Kosachev said, saying the timetable depends "definitely on how Georgians will continue to behave."

"If I would ask you in response to the same question how fast the American forces can leave Iraq, for example, the answer would be as soon as we have guarantees for peace and security there," Kosachev told CNN. "The same answer would be toward this situation."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev initially sent forces into Georgia in support of pro-Moscow separatists there on August 8. Since, then, pressure has been mounting on Russia to pull its troops out of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Moscow and Tbilisi signed a ceasefire agreement late last week aimed at putting an end to the week-long conflict, and set the date for the pull-out. But Moscow's tone has remained belligerent.

Medvedev promises 'crushing response'

Speaking to a group of World War II veterans on Monday, Medvedev warned against any further Georgian action.

"If anyone thinks that they can kill our citizens and escape unpunished, we will never allow this. If anyone tries this again, we will come out with a crushing response," Medvedev told his audience in the Russian city of Kursk.

"We have all the necessary resources, political, economic and military. If anyone had any illusions about this, they have to abandon them," Medvedev said.

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