Moscow Says Some Troops to Stay Put

POTI, Georgia — Russian soldiers were at work digging positions outside Georgia's main Black Sea port city of Poti on Thursday at the same time Moscow maintained that its soldiers were on schedule to pull out of the country proper by Friday.

Western governments, meanwhile, continued to call on Moscow to remove its forces faster, in line with the truce agreement signed between Russia and Georgia.

The conflicting events and comments appear to have been fueled by different understandings of what constitutes a buffer zone around the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in which Russian peacekeepers are allowed to operate.

"We are standing within the Collective Forces for Peacekeeping Zone, which extends south to the Rioni River and east to Senaki and the Inguri Dam," said a Russian lieutenant colonel, who would only give his name as Innokenty.

"We are carrying on our peacekeeping operation. We are not fighting," said another lieutenant colonel, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

At the same time, he argued that there was no peace yet. "The aggressor — Georgia —has not been pacified," he said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is acting as a mediator in the conflict, said the question of security zones on Georgian territory should be discussed only after the Russian withdrawal.

Alexander Stubb, the Finnish foreign minister and current chairman of the OSCE, said Thursday that he would not discuss the size of a security zone.

"I believe that nobody has precise information about this," he said by telephone from Tbilisi.

But Stubb went on to add that he didn't believe that the truce brokered by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France last week in the Russian-Georgian conflict made provision for security zones.

"My interpretation is identical to that of President Sarkozy. … Buffer zones are not part of the deal," Stubb said.

Under a UN ratified peacekeeping agreement in 1994 that ended the war over Abkhazia, Russian forces are permitted to maintain a presence on Georgian territory inside a security zone surrounding the secessionist region.

After pouring across the border in response to the Georgian army's armed attempt on Aug. 8 to bring South Ossetia back under its control, Russian forces penetrated deeper into Georgian territory both from North Ossetia in the center and Abkhazia in the west.

The truce between Moscow and Tbilisi does say Russian forces can work in a "security zone," extending 7 kilometers into Georgia from South Ossetia. It does not mention Abkhazia, which lies more than 100 kilometers to the west.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin planned to keep 500 troops in a "zone of responsibility" that includes territory outside South Ossetia, Reuters reported.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili condemned the comments.

"There will be no buffer zones. We will never live with any buffer zones," he said in Tbilisi, the news agency reported. "We'll never allow anything like this."

Russian troops also continued to hold positions around Gori and in Ingoeti, some 50 kilometers west of Tbilisi. Because they were blocking Georgia's main east-west highway and after the blowing up of a vital rail bridge, the country remains effectively divided in two isolated halves.

But there were also signs that some Russian units were withdrawing.

A column of 21 T-72 tanks, four Grad missile launchers and some armored personnel carriers and trucks entered the southern end of the Roksky Tunnel, which links North and South Ossetia, on Thursday, Reuters reported.

In the capital of Tskhinvali, meanwhile, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity was given a hero's welcome at a rally. Speaking from a stage on Teatralnaya Ploshchad amid the charred ruins of the city, Kokoity excoriated the West and said he expected Russian recognition of South Ossetia's independence in the coming days.

"The recognition of South Ossetia's independence is the guarantee of safety for our people," Kokoity said to thunderous applause. "We will live as a free people."

Kokoity thanked the Russian army for liberating the region and said Saakashvili and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should "take their failed policies back to Washington."

Kokoity received backing at the rally from Federation Council Deputy Speaker Svetlana Orlova.

"You must remember that Russia is always with you and that Russia will never leave you in the lurch," Orlova said.

"The Americans and Saakashvili would, of course, like to be the commanders of the Caucasus, but this will never happen. Russia was, is and will be always be present in the Caucasus."

Nikolaus von Twickel reported from Poti; Matt Siegel reported from Tskhinvali.