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Kremlin to begin limited pullback

Details, timetable of withdrawal unclear

TBILISI, Georgia – The Kremlin said Sunday that Russia’s military would begin withdrawing its forces from Georgia today, although it was not clear immediately how far or how fast the troops would move.

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 agreement 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 they were told by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that 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.

“From tomorrow, Russia will begin the withdrawal of the military contingent which was moved to reinforce Russian peacekeepers after the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia,” Kremlin officials said in a statement, according to the Reuters news agency.

Moscow has made similar commitments in recent days but failed to follow through and has sent conflicting signals. On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to spell out a timetable for withdrawal, saying it will take “as long as needed” and was 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 of Georgia its military now controls. Dozens of 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. All along the road, Russian soldiers had erected checkpoints, taken up residency in an abandoned Georgian military base and set up roadside tent cities.

Appearing 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 following the outbreak of its war with Russia, said talks could begin soon on integrating this small country into NATO.

It was Georgia’s push to join the alliance that apparently prompted 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.

Germany has enormous business interests with Russia and might have more influence with Moscow than the United States, which is viewed by the Kremlin with suspicion. German officials also have quietly chastised Saakashvili for his boisterous and belligerent rhetorical style, which they see as needlessly inflammatory, European diplomats in Tbilisi say.

But regardless of who started the conflict, Western officials have grown increasingly critical of Russian conduct inside Georgia, where they worry about a growing humanitarian crisis. Thousands of Georgians have been displaced from their homes in the conflict.

“They’re trying to dismantle this country,” said one Western official, on the sidelines of the Merkel news conference, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Why would they roam around western Georgia and scare people, cut off supply lines and make sure until the civil administration erodes and gradually collapses, if this was not the objective?”