SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Washington demanded on Friday that Russia pull its troops out of Georgia “now”, but Moscow said it would be another 10 days before the bulk of its force left Georgian soil.
In a sign of growing tension between Moscow and the West over the conflict in Georgia, a Russian news agency reported that Russia had temporarily frozen cooperation with the NATO alliance, though there was no immediate confirmation.
In some of Washington’s toughest comments to date, the White House declared Russia in violation of its commitments to leave the territory of Georgia after routing Georgian forces in a war that erupted two weeks ago.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said he could not imagine a circumstance in which the United States would engage in military-to-military cooperation with Moscow until the Georgia situation was resolved.
U.S. impatience has been growing by the day as it waits for a full-scale pullout of troops and weaponry that Russia sent into its small Caucasus neighbor two weeks ago to counter a Georgian attack on the Moscow-backed South Ossetia region.
A Reuters reporter saw a column of T-72 main battle tanks lumbering across the border from Russia into Georgia — the first sign of heavy armor being withdrawn from Georgian soil — but elsewhere Russian forces remained in place.
The commander of Russia’s ground forces said all troops sent to reinforce Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia would go back to Russian within 10 days.
“These forces will be withdrawn to Russian territory,” Vladimir Boldyrev told reporters in Sochi, where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has his summer residence, in a conference call.
It was not immediately clear how that timetable would fit in with a previous Russian commitment to pull back its forces to behind a buffer zone around South Ossetia by the end of Friday.
That buffer zone was emerging as a new source of contention between Russia and Georgia.
Moscow said even after the pullout it would station 500 troops in what it called a “zone of responsibility” as part of a peacekeeping operation to protect South Ossetia.
That would leave Russian troops still inside the Georgian heartland and close to the main east-west highway on which its economy depends.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is backed by the United States and wants to take his tiny ex-Soviet state into the NATO alliance, said he would not stand for that.
“There will be no buffer zones. We will never live with any buffer zones. We’ll never allow anything like this,” he told Reuters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
COLUMN OF TANKS
A Reuters reporter at the Roki tunnel, a few kilometers (miles) from the Georgian-Russian border and the main access route for Russian forces, said some equipment was being pulled out.
“I can see 21 T-72 tanks moving towards the Roki tunnel in the direction of Russia,” he said.
“I can also see four Grad artillery launchers, several armored personnel carriers, and heavy trucks ready to move into the tunnel,” the reporter said.
Speaking earlier at a news conference, Saakashvili said far from pulling back, the Russian army if anything was widening the areas it occupied.
“They don’t show any sign that they want to give up control,” he said. “It looks like the word ‘withdrawal’ is understood in different ways by different people.”
The crisis erupted on August 7-8 when Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Moscow region which broke with Tbilisi in 1992. Russian forces hit back, thrusting beyond the region deep into Georgia and overrunning the army in fierce fighting.
NATO states have pressed Russia to pull its troops swiftly out of Georgia and the alliance this week froze contacts with Russia over the conflict.
Russia’s RIA news agency quoted Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to the alliance, as saying the defence ministry had temporarily frozen cooperation with NATO pending a decision by the Kremlin on long-term ties.
That could threaten a deal under which many of the supplies to the NATO security force in Afghanistan are flown in through Russian airspace.
Underlining Western support for Georgia, a top U.S. general said the Pentagon expects to help Tbilisi rebuild its military, which was left crippled by the Russian attack.
Valery Gergiev, Russia’s best-known living conductor and an ethnic Ossetian, was holding a concert in South Ossetia on Thursday designed to focus the world’s attention on what he said was the devastation Georgian forces inflicted on the region.
But Georgia has accused Russia and their South Ossetian separatist allies of exploiting the Georgian defeat to drive ethnic Georgians out of their homes in the region, and torching their villages.