Protests Delay Russian Troop Pullout from Georgia

MOSCOW (Reuters)–Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on Thursday separatist protests were preventing troops leaving a base in Georgia in line with an OSCE-brokered accord.

Ivanov said Russian troops wanted to leave the base in the breakaway region of Abkhazia in northwest Georgia–but they would not crush protesters blocking their path.

“We are not leaving over their bodies–and nobody can force us to do so,” Ivanov told the Interfax news agency. “We are not going to fight our way out of Abkhazia.”

Russian troops have missed a July 1 deadline to leave the Gudauta base in Abkhazia–which has been outside Tbilisi’s control since a 1992-93 war saw separatist forces expel government troops.

The presence of Russian troops in Georgia — Moscow also maintains 1,500 peace-keepers in Abkhazia in addition to those at the Gudauta base — is a sensitive political issue in Tbilisi.

Russia agreed to close Gudauta and another base near Tbilisi under a deal reached at the 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Moscow sent senior officers to the breakaway province early last month after protesting separatists prevented troops from leaving.

Ivanov blamed the delay on Georgia’s failure to ensure the withdrawal could be conducted safely.

Tbilisi has accused Russia of aiding Abkhaz separatists who took up arms shortly after Georgia gained its independence from the Soviet Union.

Georgia–a south Caucasus nation with aspirations to NATO membership–says Moscow is deliberately dragging its feet and does not accept its explanation for the delay.

Russia has said it needs 14 years to withdraw 3,500 troops from two other Georgian bases. Tbilisi wants to see them out before 2005.

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