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Russian troops slow to leave Georgia

NATO said Tuesday that it 'cannot continue with business as usual' with Russia until Russia removes its troops. Meanwhile, Georgians struggle to stay safe and get food.

By Paul RimpleContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2008

Detained: Georgians sat atop a Russian armored personnel carrier Tuesday after being detained by Russian troops in Poti, Georgia.

Bela Szandelszky/AP


Gori, Georgia

Two days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that his country's troops would begin withdrawing from Georgia, there's little evidence of a pullout, with Georgians in occupied territory struggling to stay safe and get food.

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A few hundred meters north of Georgia's ransacked Army base in the central Georgian city of Gori, Russian troops on Monday were digging trenches to fortify an artillery battery.

The troops also have detained Georgian policemen and continue to block the only highway linking west to east Georgia. And Russia's presence in Georgia is not limited to its military. Russian broadcasts have replaced Georgian TV in Russian-occupied cities such as Gori.

"For four days all we've seen is Russian TV. They make us Georgians look like such animals," says Gori resident Zoya Lazarishvili.

One column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles left Gori on Tuesday, but Russian officials said the main withdrawal would not happen for days to come.

Russian soldiers took 20 Georgian troops prisoner at a key port in western Georgia on Tuesday and commandeered American Humvees used in US-Georgian military exercises in the past few years.

NATO ends 'business as usual'

The developments came as ministers of the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), meeting in Brussels, said the alliance "cannot continue with business as usual" with Russia until it had fully pulled out of Georgia. [Editor's note: NATO was corrected from 'American' to 'Atlantic']

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed Tuesday to immediately send 20 additional unarmed military monitors to areas near the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia and to deploy up to 80 more. The OSCE already has eight military monitors there as part of its 200-person mission in Georgia. Six were in South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, until they were evacuated to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi after their field office was shelled during the recent fighting between Georgian and Russian troops.

Russia's Navy said on Tuesday it had canceled a September visit by a US navy ship to a Russian port. The US last week pulled out of a naval exercise with Russia because of Russia's intervention in Georgia.

But while Western officials mull how to punish Russia, polls suggest most Russians approve of their government's actions.

A survey by the independent Levada Analytical Center in Moscow showed 71 percent of respondents supported Russian-backed South Ossetia in the conflict, with 21 percent neutral and only 2 percent support for Georgia.

Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of Gori's population of 50,000 has fled, according to Christoph Bierwirth, of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) in Georgia. The city is a virtual ghost town as shops are shuttered and the streets are empty of cars and people. Most of those who remain in Gori are the elderly and feeble. Few young people stayed behind.