Georgia wary of Russian promise of withdrawal

Russia gave conflicting signals Thursday about whether it would withdraw its troops from Georgia by its self-imposed deadline of today, while Georgia's president said he saw “very little if any movement” of Russian troops from occupied areas.

The deputy head of the Russian general staff, Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said at a news briefing in Moscow that the pullout would be completed on schedule.

“The pullback of Russian forces is taking place at such a tempo that by the end of Aug. 22, they will be in the zones of responsibility of Russian peacekeepers,” he said.

But the commander of Russian ground forces, Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev, said it would take at least 10 days for the troops and equipment to be withdrawn “in columns in the established order.”

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili questioned whether Moscow was serious about meeting the deadline, citing reports of Russian forces digging in around the port city of Poti and establishing checkpoints on strategic roads. He said that in some cases Russian forces had advanced farther into Georgia on Thursday and had “been taking over additional sites in my country.”

Speaking after a meeting with Gen. John Craddock, the commander of U.S. troops in Europe, the Georgian president said he was intent on rebuilding his army with U.S. assistance.

“We need to make them stronger,” Saakashvili said of his forces. “We need to have this country defended. And we need new people trained. We need new equipment. And we will work very closely with U.S. to get all of this.”

Any renewed U.S. military aid to the Georgians would surely anger Russia. Previously, the U.S. has trained Georgian troops for tours in Iraq and under a NATO partnership program.

Craddock was noncommittal about Saakashvili's comments. He said he was in Tbilisi to help coordinate humanitarian aid and to meet with Georgia's minister of defense, without elaborating.

In another sign of the hardening positions on both sides, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, offered some of the strongest indications to date that his country may recognize the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He said the regions had renewed requests for recognition, blamed Georgia for the war and said that “Saakashvili bears responsibility for how the situation will develop in the future.”