7,600 Troops Slated for Rebel Regions

ReutersRussian troops manning a checkpoint in Khobi, Georgia. The sign reads, "Peacekeepers! Stop! Prohibited Zone."
Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Tuesday that Russia would station about 7,600 troops in Georgia's separatist regions, a sharp increase on the numbers deployed before Moscow sent in troops last month.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said troops would stay in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for a long time to prevent any "repeat of Georgian aggression."

Serdyukov announced the planned force levels one day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy left Moscow with a commitment from the Kremlin to withdraw from undisputed Georgian territory within a month. But there was no explicit mention in the French-brokered deal of the Russian forces inside Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite previous Western demands that all troops return to their pre-conflict positions.

Briefing President Dmitry Medvedev on negotiations with the regions' leaders, Serdyukov said, "We have already agreed on the contingent -- in the region of 3,800 men in each republic -- [and on] its structure and location."

Medvedev ordered Serdyukov to determine how Russia would implement a request from South Ossetia and Abkhazia "to deploy bases" in those regions.

Lavrov was due to meet the two separatist regions' foreign ministers later Tuesday to formally establish diplomatic ties, a step likely to further irritate Western governments.

Before fighting broke out in Georgia last month, Russia had a peacekeeping force of 1,000 servicemen in South Ossetia and a contingent of about 2,500 in Abkhazia. They were operating under a peacekeeping mandate from the 1990s.

After four hours of talks at the presidential residence outside Moscow on Monday, Medvedev and European Union leaders led by Sarkozy agreed that Russian forces in buffer zones outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia would pull back within a month.

They are to be replaced with an international monitoring force that will include a 200-strong EU contingent.

The French leader, accompanied by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, took the deal to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who offered cautious approval.

"I think tonight a step forward was made, a step forward on the path towards the full implementation of the six points negotiated by President Sarkozy on Aug 12," Saakashvili said.

Lavrov said the agreement was a vindication for Russia because it included an EU guarantee that Georgia would not use force again against the separatists. "The responsibility for any attempts of aggression by Georgia will rest with the international presence," he told a news conference.

On the Russian troops' presence in the breakaway regions, Lavrov said: "They will be there for a long time, at least for the foreseeable period. That is necessary to not allow a repeat of Georgian aggression."

A French official said Monday's talks were so stormy that Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, threatened to walk out when Russian negotiators tried to remove a reference to pre-conflict positions.

"At that moment, Sarkozy got up and said 'We're going. This is not negotiable,'" the official said. The feud blew over when Medvedev, who had left the room, returned and appealed for calm, the official said.

A Kremlin source denied "anything specifically tense" about the talks.

The final agreement included a commitment to hold international talks on the Georgian crisis in Geneva on Oct. 15. Lavrov said Russia would demand South Ossetia and Abkhazia have a "full place at the table for those discussions."