NATO Urges Pullout From Abkhazia

APA Mi-24 attack helicopter belonging to Russian peacekeeping forces accompanies a train in Abkhazia in December.
BRUSSELS -- NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Russia should withdraw 400 troops deployed to repair railway lines in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

"This deployment is clearly in contravention of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement Tuesday, referring to Moscow's action which has provoked protests from Georgia.

"These forces should be withdrawn, and both Russia and Georgia should engage quickly in a high-level and open dialogue to de-escalate tensions," de Hoop Scheffer added of Russia's deployment of the unarmed soldiers there Saturday.

Abkhazia is at the center of a dispute between Moscow and Tbilisi over Georgia's intention to join NATO and Russian support for its rebel regions.

Russian soldiers patrol between Abkhaz and Georgian forces under a 1994 UN cease-fire that allowed Moscow to station up to 3,000 soldiers in the region. It reinforced its peacekeepers this year, saying Georgia was preparing to invade -- an assertion Tbilisi denies.

"This deployment of Russian railroad forces does not appear to have any legal basis. It is not taking place in the context of the CIS peacekeeping mission, and it is against the express wishes of the Georgian government," de Hoop Scheffer said.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued before de Hoop Scheffer spoke that Georgia should stop saying Russia was bent on annexing Abkhazia. "It would not be bad if the Georgian side would swap the senseless mantra about the threat of annexation and intervention for practical steps to strengthen ties," the ministry said.

For its part, the Kremlin said President Dmitry Medvedev discussed Moscow's support for Abkhazia with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by telephone Tuesday.