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NATO terms Russia’s use of force ‘disproportionate’

Times Staff Writers

The Western military alliance Tuesday began curtailing ties with Russia for its “disproportionate” use of force in Georgia, but the foreign ministers at an emergency gathering of North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries stopped short of agreeing to rearm the beleaguered state or to take other such tough measures.

A parallel debate at the United Nations ended in a standoff as Western powers pressed the Security Council to demand immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia. Russia, which holds a veto on the council, condemned the initiative, and it did not come to a vote.

Both diplomatic moves to isolate Moscow came as Russian troops continued to conduct potentially provocative military operations throughout Georgia and showed little sign of abiding by an agreement signed in Moscow over the weekend to withdraw from the country.

Russian reaction to the stepped-up Western pressure was dismissive. Its envoys called the emergency Security Council session “a waste of time” and NATO’s statement irrelevant.

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“The mountain gave birth to a mouse,” said Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO.

In the Black Sea city of Poti, Russian soldiers in armored vehicles stormed into Georgia’s main civilian port and arrested 20 soldiers guarding the site, said Interior Ministry officials in Tbilisi, the capital. The Russians allegedly looted the site, swiping ammunition that belonged to the U.S. troops who were in Georgia as part of a military exercise conducted in July.

Russian armored vehicles also tried to enter a Georgian military base in the western city of Sachkhere before they were turned back by police, a Georgian Foreign Ministry news release said. The Russians allegedly warned that they would be back with reinforcements.

Despite the hostilities, the two sides exchanged prisoners of war Tuesday at a handoff near Igoeti, 25 miles west of the capital. Fifteen haggard but otherwise healthy Georgians were swapped for five Russians.

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In response to the crisis, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group representing 56 nations, decided to dispatch as many as 100 unarmed peace monitors to Georgia as a possible prelude to deploying an international peacekeeping force, the group announced.

And NATO ministers said in a two-page statement that they were “considering seriously the implications of Russia’s actions for the NATO-Russia relationship.”

Russian military action, they said, “has been disproportionate and inconsistent with its peacekeeping role” in the disputed region of South Ossetia since the early 1990s. “There can be no business as usual with Russia under the present circumstances,” said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary-general.

Georgia’s drive to become a NATO member over Moscow’s strenuous objections enraged the Kremlin, analysts say. An Aug. 7 attack by Georgia on Russian positions in South Ossetia prompted the Russian incursion.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized NATO’s statement because “it does not say a word about how it all began and why it had all happened,” according to the Interfax news agency.

“They are trying to turn the aggressor into a victim, to whitewash the criminal regime, they are trying to save the regime that has failed,” he said, alleging that NATO was aiming to “rearm” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government.

NATO’s response, which comes after the gravest Russian challenge in Europe since the Cold War, is bound to bring criticism of the 26-nation organization by those who see the West’s reaction as showing that the alliance formed to confront the Soviet Union is not up to dealing with a resurgent Russia.

U.S. and European officials insisted that the actions were sufficient at a time when many in the alliance argue that they should prod the Russians but not take steps that could deepen the divide. One European diplomat said the language singling out Russia was tough by NATO standards.

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NATO officials “left no doubt of their displeasure with Russia,” said the diplomat. “They pointed the finger.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted to reporters that “the United States got precisely what it sought in this statement.”

She described it as a “very tough statement that the Russian president ought to keep his word” by honoring a French-brokered cease-fire deal signed Saturday.

Russian officials had said they would start withdrawing troops Monday, but there was scant evidence of such a pullback from Georgia proper. Russian troops acting as peacekeepers have long been based in South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, that went to war with Georgia’s central government in the early 1990s and have been largely autonomous since.

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At the U.N. Security Council, envoys of the United States, Britain and Georgia accused Russia of violating the cease-fire by pressing a military offensive far beyond the original conflict in South Ossetia. France, Belgium, Italy, Croatia and Costa Rica voiced similar criticism.

“The objectives of this offensive suggest Russian intention to weaken and subjugate Georgia,” said Alejandro Wolff, the deputy U.S. representative.

Russia had expected the 15-member council to rubber-stamp the six-point cease-fire deal. It calls for both sides to renounce the use of force, cease hostilities, allow free access to humanitarian aid and withdraw forces to pre-conflict positions, while allowing Russian peacekeeping troops to implement unspecified “additional security measures.”

But Russian’s ongoing offensive prompted France to put forward a briefer draft resolution Tuesday. It simply demands full compliance with the cease-fire deal, and the “immediate withdrawal of Russian forces to the lines held prior to the outbreak of hostilities.”

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It also supports “the territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders” -- a formula Russia says is now obsolete because South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s Moscow-backed leaders refuse to be part of Georgia.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called the switch “a very strange tactic” and said he could not support an incomplete, “one-sided” draft.

“There’s a clear expression of propaganda in detriment to serious, important political work which needs to be done in the Security Council,” he said.

French envoy Jean-Pierre Lacroix would not say whether France would bring the resolution to a vote and provoke a Russian veto. He held out hope that the Security Council debate might have worked to goad the Russians.

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Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said Tuesday that the pace of Russia’s withdrawal would depend on how Georgia’s military acts.

“The withdrawal of troops has begun,” he told reporters, according to Interfax. “It will be measured against how effectively Georgia fulfills its obligation to return its troops to their permanent bases and how peacekeeping forces are being deployed in the security zone.”

Churkin said those Russian peacekeepers would be fully deployed by Friday, allowing other Russian troops to leave. Peacekeepers based in South Ossetia since fighting broke out between ethnic Ossetians and Georgians in the early 1990s have begun to assume wide latitude for interpretation of a security zone along the border, Georgian officials and independent analysts say.

Except for a few years immediately after World War I, Moscow dominated Georgia from the 18th century until the breakup of the Soviet Union and considers it part of its strategic sphere of influence. Saakashvili’s staunchly pro-American government began hurriedly moving Georgia toward an alliance with Washington and the West, an action Moscow looked upon with anger.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

boudreaux@latimes.com

Richter reported from Brussels and Boudreaux from the United Nations. Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Tbilisi and Sergei Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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