POTI, Georgia (Reuters) – Russia said on Saturday it would continue to patrol Georgia’s main Black Sea port, defying Western demands for a complete pullback to positions held before this month’s outbreak of fighting over a Georgian rebel region.
Russia said it had honored a ceasefire deal by pulling back most of its forces, but soldiers and weapons remained deep inside Georgia to carry out what the Kremlin has called a peacekeeping operation.
And on the main road leading to the port town of Poti, around 20 Russian soldiers were manning a checkpoint, although not checking traffic.
In Moscow, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, said Russian troops would patrol Poti, even though it lies just outside the security zone Russia says is covered by its peacekeeping mandate.
He told reporters those patrols were in line with a ceasefire deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“Should we sit behind the fence? What use would we be then? They (Georgian forces) will drive around in Hummers, move munitions around in trucks, and are we supposed to just count them?” he said after a news briefing.
Georgia and its Western allies say the “security zones” staked out this week by the Russian peacekeepers will give Moscow a stranglehold over a country that lies on a transit route for energy exports from the Caspian Sea.
Germany joined the United States on Saturday in demanding Russia pull back to the positions it held before the fighting.
“The government expects Russia to complete the withdrawal immediately,” spokesman Thomas Steg said in a statement. “Russia has begun its withdrawal from Georgia, but not completed it.”
Up to 1,000 people gathered at the checkpoint in Poti to protest against the Russians. “While we are still alive we will not allow them to stay here,” said 60-year-old Roland Silagava.
Georgia’s parliament voted on Saturday to prolong a “state of war” until September 8.
This means Georgia’s armed forces remain in a state of heightened readiness and that reservists are kept mobilized.
The conflict has left the United States, NATO and the European Union groping for a response. Beyond freezing NATO’s contacts with Russia, the West looks to have little influence over Russia, one of its main energy suppliers.
A U.S. trade official said Russia’s actions could affect its membership of the Group of Eight industrialized nations and its bid to join the World Trade Organization.
“That is all at risk now,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was quoted as saying by Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly.
Georgia’s busiest port for oil and oil products is to the south in Batumi, but Poti can load up to 100,000 barrels per day of oil products, which arrive by rail from Azerbaijan.
Poti is also a major gateway for merchandise bound not only for Georgia but for other Caucasus republics and Central Asia.
Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands displaced in the fighting that erupted on August 7-8. Moscow sent in troops after Georgia tried to retake the separatist South Ossetia region.
Russian forces defeated the assault and pushed on, crossing Georgia’s main East-West highway and nearing a Western-backed oil pipeline. They also moved into Western Georgia from Abkhazia, a second breakaway region on the Black Sea.
Moscow set itself a deadline of Friday night to complete its pullback, and by Saturday large swathes of Georgia were free of Russian forces for the first time in two weeks.
Russian checkpoints were gone from the main highway linking the capital to the Black Sea, an economic lifeline.
A Reuters cameraman saw a column of 150 Russian tanks, trucks and armored cars leave a town near the Black Sea and head back into rebel-held territory.
In the town of Gori near to South Ossetia, the scene of Russian bombing and extensive looting, the food market re-opened and elderly women swept up broken glass from the streets.
But 6 km (4 miles) to the north, a Reuters reporter saw Russian soldiers at a checkpoint in the village of Karaleti, where Georgia says Moscow has no right to station troops.
Russia has denied any plans to annex Georgian territory, saying it only wants to protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia from a pro-Western Georgian leadership it accuses of dangerous aggression. But it also says it is hard to envisage those regions returning under Georgia control.