Saakashvili calls latest Russian agreement ‘a step forward’


Tbilisi/Moscow : Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili early Tuesday called the latest Russian agreement to withdraw from Georgian territory “a step forward”.

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Saakashvili held a joint press conference after midnight with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had arrived late Monday from Moscow after extracting a promise from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to withdraw and to return to a ceasefire agreement that ended the five-day Caucasus war last month.

Medvedev agreed to a timeline Monday for the withdrawal of Russian forces, to be replaced by European Union (EU) observers after receiving a guarantee on the non-use of force from Georgia via EU negotiators. But Medvedev insisted that more than 500 Russian troops still in Georgia proper complied with the ceasefire accord by acting as “peacekeepers”.

Medvedev had met Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU presidency, accompanied by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and European Commission President Jose Manuzzel Barroso. The trio flew directly to Tbilisi, Georgia, for late Monday talks with Saakashvili.

The latest agreement by Moscow was just an “initial stage of the huge work which is ahead of us,” Saakashvili said. “We have long way ahead towards restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. There is no way Georgia will ever give up a piece of its sovereignty, a piece of its territory.”

Sarkozy said that Europe will be “very vigilant” in insisting on Russian implementation of Monday’s agreement. “If this agreement is applied as I hope and as I believe, we will have avoided deaths, misery and suffering,” he said.

Late Monday, Georgia had alleged that Russian forces, rather than showing signs of withdrawal, had dug in at checkpoints over the weekend in the Black Sea port of Poti, deep inside the former Soviet republic.

The Georgian government said that Russian armoured personal carriers and about 60 troops were reinforcing two checkpoints in the strategic port, where a US battleship delivered aid last week.