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Page last updated at 15:50 GMT, Tuesday, 9 September 2008 16:50 UK

Russia to keep troops in Georgia

Russian troops in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali
Russian troops will remain in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali

Russia says it will keep 7,600 troops in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after withdrawing from the rest of the country.

On Monday, Russia agreed to withdraw its troops from positions within Georgia, taken up during the recent conflict, by mid-October.

The first troops were seen abandoning a checkpoint near Abkhazia, at the Black Sea town of Ganmukhuri, witnesses said.

But Russia says it will set up military bases in both disputed regions.

It also says it has established formal diplomatic ties with their administrations.

The move followed a decision - condemned by the US and EU but defined as "irrevocable" by Moscow - to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said troops were expected to remain in the two regions "for the foreseeable future".

"Russian troops will remain on the territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on request of their leaders in parliament," Mr Lavrov said from Moscow.

"They will be there a long time. This is absolutely necessary, so as not to allow a repeat of armed actions," he added.

Mr Lavrov said that both regions should also be able to participate in talks on Georgia scheduled for next month in Geneva with "fully fledged" places.

Russia is expected to sign formal agreements on troop deployment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia over the coming days.

International observers

Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said that some 3,800 men would be positioned in each breakaway region.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had already indicated that Moscow intended to maintain a military presence in the regions, but Mr Serdyukov's statement provides the first specific breakdown of troop numbers.

Russian soldiers chat as they stand guard at Karaleti checkpoint
Russians are present at several checkpoints on Georgian territory
On Monday, Mr Medvedev pledged to withdraw troops from the rest of Georgia on condition that the EU would deploy at least 200 observers, along with 220 other international monitors to ensure the security of the two breakaway regions.

Under the deal, Russia will pull out within 10 days of the deployment of EU monitors.

Already on Tuesday, Russian troops and military vehicles rolled away from their positions at Ganmukhuri, a Black Sea town near the border with Abkhazia.

"It is the first sign of the Russian pull-out from the so-called buffer zones as a result of the 8 September agreement," a Georgian interior ministry spokesman said.

A defence ministry official in Moscow confirmed the move.

"In accordance with the agreements... the defence ministry has begun the dismantling of checkpoints in zones in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

Russian troops are present in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in so-called buffer zones around these regions and near the strategic port city of Poti.

Fighting between Russia and Georgia began on 7 August after the Georgian military tried to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia by force.

Russian forces launched a counter-attack and the conflict ended with the ejection of Georgian troops from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Also on Tuesday, South Ossetia's Prosecutor General Taimuraz Khugayev said that investigations had confirmed that more than 500 people had been killed during Georgia's attack last month, according to Russian news agency, Interfax.

Russia initially suggested more than 1,500 people had died in the conflict. Independent observers say they have been unable to confirm such high figures.





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