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Russia vows to start exit from Georgia today

The Kremlin said Sunday that Russia's military would begin withdrawing from Georgia today, although it was not clear immediately how far or how fast.

Germany's leader, meanwhile, voiced strong support for this former Soviet republic's desire to join NATO, a goal that has fed Moscow's anger toward Georgia and the West.

The Kremlin statement followed repeated U.S. and European calls for Russia to honor a cease-fire deal it signed Saturday and pull troops out of Georgia proper. But Russia made no mention of leaving the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where it has long stationed peacekeepers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy both said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told them Russia would begin to redeploy the troops sent into its neighbor's territory early this month after accusing Georgia of attacking civilians and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

Moscow has made similar commitments in recent days but failed to follow through. On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to spell out a timetable for withdrawal, saying it will take “as long as needed” and is contingent on the Georgian security situation. But Russia's Itar-Tass news service Sunday quoted an anonymous defense official saying some units have begun to pull out.

Meanwhile, Moscow showed no sign of loosening its grip in areas its military now controls. Supply trucks and tanks were streaming south out of Tskhinvali, the capital of Russian-controlled South Ossetia, toward Gori, the town on Georgia's main east-west highway.

Along the road, Russian soldiers had erected checkpoints, set up residency in an abandoned Georgian military base and set up tent cities.

On NBC's “Meet the Press” on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed skepticism about the Russian promise to withdraw.

“I just know that the Russian president said several days ago Russian military operations would stop. They didn't. The Russian president told President Sarkozy that the minute the cease-fire was signed by (Georgian) President (Mikheil) Saakashvili, Russian forces would begin to withdraw,” she said. “They didn't.

Merkel, the second West European leader to visit Georgia after the outbreak of its war with Russia, said talks could begin soon on integrating this small country into NATO.

Georgia's push to join the alliance apparently spurred Moscow to escalate pressure on Saakashvili's staunchly pro-U.S. government.

“Georgia, if it wants to become a member of NATO, will become one,“ Merkel told reporters at a joint appearance with Saakashvili outside the glass-domed hilltop presidential palace in Tbilisi, the capital, 25 miles away from Russian troop positions.

But Georgia's territorial disputes with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia were reasons for not granting Georgia so-called Membership Action Plan status, a prelude to joining NATO.

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