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Published: Friday, 8/15/2008

Bush hits Russia on bullying and intimidation

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Russian soldiers block the road on the outskirts of Gori, northwest of the capital Tbilisi, Georgia, Thursday. Russian soldiers block the road on the outskirts of Gori, northwest of the capital Tbilisi, Georgia, Thursday.
DARKO BANDIC / ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

WASHINGTON President Bush on Friday accused Russia of bullying and intimidation against Georgia, saying that the people in the former Soviet republic chose freedom and we will not cast them aside.

Bush, preparing to travel to his Texas ranch, said in a statement on the White House grounds that he ll keep in close touch with both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice amid the continuing showdown between Moscow and Tibilisi over two separatist provinces in Georgia.

Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century, Bush said. He reiterated Gates assertion of Thursday that Moscow s behavior in Georgia has damaged its relationship with Washington and its Western allies.

TBILISI, Georgia - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that a proposed cease-fire she wants Georgia to sign with Russia protects Georgia's interests despite concessions to Moscow.

On her way to Tbilisi with the document, Rice said the immediate goal is to get Russian combat forces out of Georgia and more difficult questions about the status of the country's separatist regions and Russia's presence there can be addressed later.

"The United States would never ask Georgia to sign onto something where its interests were not protected," she told reporters aboard her plane as she flew to the Georgian capital from France where she met French President Nicolas Sarkozy who brokered the cease-fire.

"This is not an agreement about the future of Abkhazia and the future of South Ossetia," Rice said, referring to the two flashpoint areas. "This is about getting Russian troops out."

President Bush was to make a statement Friday morning on Georgia before leaving Washington for his Texas ranch.

Rice will be consulting with pro-Western Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili about details of the cease-fire, which will require Russia to withdraw its combat forces from Georgia but allows Russian peacekeepers to remain in South Ossetia and conduct limited patrols outside the region.

The draft document also does not commit Russia to respecting Georgia's "territorial integrity," but rather refers to Georgian "independence" and "sovereignty," meaning Moscow does not necessarily accept that South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are Georgian.

Officials say the eventual status of the two areas will be worked out under existing U.N. Security Council resolutions which recognize Georgia's international borders and Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Georgian.

The U.S. and its allies had been pushing for Russia to agree to restore the situation in Georgia to the "status quo ante," or how it stood before Georgian troops moved into South Ossetia last week prompting Russia's severe response and seven days of bloodshed.

Now they have been forced to back down on the key issues of the mandate of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, which did not previously include outside patrols, and the territorial integrity question, which Russia ostensibly accepted before but no longer does.

U.S. officials concede the agreement is not perfect but maintain it will get Russian combat troops out of Georgia, hopefully in a matter of days.

"It will be a major accomplishment for Georgia to get the Russians out of their country and back effectively to the status quo ante," Rice said. "I think that will be a major accomplishment."

In addition to the cease-fire document, Rice is carrying with her a letter signed by Sarkozy that clarifies the special security measures that Russian peacekeepers will be allowed to take on Georgian soil, officials said.

"These clarifications are meant to protect Georgian interests," she said.

If agreed, the cease-fire would allow Russian peacekeepers who were in South Ossetia before the fighting broke out to stay and to patrol temporarily in a strip of up to 6.2 miles, or 10 kilometers, outside, officials said.

"Any measures that they are allowed to take have got to be of a very limited nature for a very limited period of time," Rice said.

Officials say the expanded mandate would end as soon as a team of international monitors could be sent to observe, something they believe can be done in weeks.

Amid rising tensions with Russia over the situation in Georgia, Rice also said Thursday she would travel to Poland soon, possibly next week, to sign a missile defense agreement that Moscow vehemently opposes.

U.S. and Polish negotiators reached a deal on Thursday to deploy American interceptors in Poland as part of a European missile shield the United States plans. Under another agreement, a radar tracking station will be located in the Czech Republic.

Russia fiercely objects to the system and the agreement with Poland is bound to infuriate the Kremlin.

Rice was all smiles as she talked about it on Thursday. "I look forward to going to Poland to sign that agreement soon," she said. "It's important for the peace and security of the region, it's important for peace and security internationally."

GORI, Georgia Russian troops on Friday allowed some humanitarian supplies into the city of Gori but continued their blockade of the strategically located city, raising doubts about Russia s intentions in the war-battered country.

Gori is on the country s main east-west highway about 45 miles west of the capital, Tbilisi. By holding it, Russian forces effectively cut Georgia in half.

What happens in Gori is key to when or if Russia will honor the terms of a cease-fire that calls for both sides to pull their forces back to the positions they held before fighting broke out last week in the separatist region of South Ossetia.

Russian military vehicles were blocking the eastern road into the city on Friday, although they allowed in one Georgia bus filled with loaves of bread.

It s quiet there, but now there are problems with food, said Alexander Lomaia, the head of Georgia s national security council. He said he was able to tour the city during the night.

Russian forces also are in several other cities deep in Georgia, including the Black Sea port city of Poti, officials say. But Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Friday that there are no Russian troops in the city of Kutaisi, Georgia s second-largest city, despite reports they were headed in that direction overnight.

Uncertainty about Russia s intentions and back-and-forth charges has clouded the conflict days after Russia and Georgia signaled acceptance of a French-brokered cease-fire, and a week after Georgia s crackdown on the two provinces drew a Russian military response.

Diplomats focused on finalizing the fragile truce between the two nations and clearing the way for Russian withdrawal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Georgia Friday to press President Mikhail Saakashvili to sign the deal. It would require major Georgian concessions, but Rice said the U.S. would never ask Georgia to agree to something that isn t in its best interests.

The plan calls for the immediate withdrawal of Russian combat troops from Georgia, but allows Russian peacekeepers who were in South Ossetia violence erupted of violence to remain and take a greater role there.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was traveling to Russia to meet President Dmitry Medvedev with plans to discuss the war.

In a report released Friday, Human Rights Watch said it has collected evidence of Russian warplanes using cluster bomb against civilian areas in Georgia. The international rights group urged Russia to stop using the weapons, which more than 100 nations have agreed to outlaw.

The group said Russian military aircraft killed at least 11 civilians and injured dozens in the town of Gori and the village of Ruisi. Russia s Defense Ministry denied the claim, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, citing an unnamed official who complained that the organization gathered the information from biased witnesses.

Georgian officials accused Russia of sending a column of tanks and other armored vehicles toward Kutaisi, the second-largest city in Georgia, then said the convey stopped about 35 miles out.

We have no idea what they re doing there, why the movement, where they re going, Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said in a telephone briefing. One explanation could be they are trying to rattle the civilian population.

The U.S. said a move toward Kutaisi would be a matter of great concern, but two defense officials told The Associated Press the Pentagon did not detect any major movement by Russia troops or tanks. There was no immediate response from Russia.

I think the world should think very carefully about what is going on here, Saakashvili said. We need to stop everything that can be stopped now.

The Russian president met in the Kremlin with the leaders of the provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a clear sign Moscow could absorb the regions even though the territory is internationally recognized as being within Georgia s borders. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a blunt message to Georgia and the world that appeared to challenge President Bush s demand a day earlier that Russia must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.

One can forget about any talk about Georgia s territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state.

The White House said Thursday that the U.S. position was unchanged and dismissed Lavrov s remark as bluster. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Russia was in danger of hurting relations with the U.S. for years to come but said he did not see any prospect for the use of American military force in Georgia.

As the military and diplomatic battles played out, relief planes swooped into Tbilisi with tons of supplies for the estimated 100,000 people uprooted by the fighting.

U.S. officials said their two planes carried cots, blankets, medicine and surgical supplies but the Russians insinuated that the United States, a Georgia ally, might have sent in military aid as well. U.S. officials rejected the claim.

Even as the relief rolled in, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the fighting and lawlessness was keeping it from reaching large parts of Georgia. In some places, relief officials were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees.



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