20 Aug 2008

Russia rejects NATO warning

8:44 pm on 20 August 2008

Russia has dismissed a warning by NATO that normal relations are impossible while its troops remain inside Georgia.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused NATO of bias and of trying to save the "criminal regime" in Georgia.

Mr Lavrov insisted that Russia was not occupying Georgia and had no plans to annex the separatist region of South Ossetia.

Earlier, NATO demanded that Russia pull out its troops from Georgia as agreed in a European Union-brokered ceasefire plan signed by both parties at the weekend.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev told French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a phone call that the pull-out would be complete by 21-22 August, with the exception of about 500 troops, on either side of South Ossetia's border.

France later tabled a United States-backed draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council demanding full compliance with the ceasefire and calling on Russia to withdraw its forces to the positions held before the conflict.

Russia's ambassador to the UN rejected the text, saying it contradicts the terms of the ceasefire deal, which, Russia maintains, allows its troops to withdraw to a security zone on the Georgian side of the South Ossetian border.

Some Russian troops have been seen leaving Gori, the biggest Georgian town close to the South Ossetia border. But the BBC reports that there are still Russian artillery positions in place. In addition, there are Russian checkpoints close to the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to regain control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia's heartland.

Following crisis talks in Brussels, NATO's 26 foreign ministers said in a joint statement on Tuesday that they could not have normal relations with Russia as long as Moscow had troops in Georgia.

Recognition plea

Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia is to launch a formal appeal for Russia to recognise it as an independent country.

The deputy speaker of Abkhazia's parliament says representatives of all the region's political parties and movements will meet toapprove the appeal.

Russia said in the wake of Georgia's military attempt to reclaim control of South Ossetia that neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia can remain part of Georgia.

Both regions have enjoyed de facto independence since breaking from Georgia in wars in the early 1990s, but no country has recognised either region.

Any move toward formal independence would provoke an angry response from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power promising to take both regions back under Georgia's control.