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Published: Friday, 8/15/2008

Georgia signs cease-fire; Rice assured Russia will sign

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Friday he signed a cease-fire agreement with Russia that protects the former Soviet republic's interests despite concessions to Moscow.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, standing beside the pro-American Georgian leader, said she had been assured that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will sign an identical document.

"With this signature by Georgia, this must take place and take place now," she said.

An emotional Saakashvili said he will "never, ever surrender" in the showdown with Russia, and he accused the West of inviting Russian aggression by denying Georgia a door to NATO membership.

Saakashvili said that Russia had interpreted NATO's snub of Georgia as capitulation. He spoke hours after President Bush accused Russia of "bullying and intimidation" against Georgia. Bush, delivering a formal statement outside the Oval Office at the White House, said the people there chose freedom and "we will not cast them aside."

Saakashvili did not appear enthusiastic about the cease-fire pact, but Rice defended it as a good way to return all forces to their prewar positions. She said that the signed pact obligates Russia to withdraw forces from Georgia immediately.

"Georgia has been attacked," and the world must help ensure that the country's independence and borders remain intact, she said following nearly five hours of meetings with Saakashvili. Their joint news conference was delayed by more than 90 minutes, a sign that the talks were difficult.

"This is not a done deal," Saakashvili said. "We need to do our utmost to deter such behavior in the future."

At one point, the beleaguered Georgian leader said: "Sorry for these emotions. But I feel emotion."

Rice said the time has come "to begin a discussion of the consequences of what Russia has done. This calls into question what role Russia really plans to play in international politics."

Bush, preparing to travel to his Texas ranch earlier Friday, said that while away from Washington, he'll keep in close touch with both Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as they try to end the showdown between Moscow and Tbilisi over two separatist provinces.

"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.

Rice, on her way to Tbilisi with the cease-fire document, had said earlier that the immediate goal was 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 could 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."

The cease-fire 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.

A draft of the 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, ideally within days.

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

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

The cease-fire would allow Russian peace keepers 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.

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.



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