Russians begin pulling back from flashpoint Georgian city

TBILISI, Georgia (AFP) — Russian forces started withdrawing Thursday from the flashpoint Georgian city of Gori, officials said, adding a new twist to the campaign for a permanent peace between the neighbours.

The pullout came as the United States through its full support behind the Georgian government saying that US military aircraft would take humanitarian aid and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would visit Tbilisi this week.

"The Russians have started to withdraw, the Georgian police and special forces are taking control," Georgian Interior Ministry Spokesman Shota Utiashvili told AFP.

A senior Russian military official said the handover would take two days.

The Russian and Georgian leaders agreed a ceasefire late Tuesday under which there was to be a withdrawal of their forces to positions before Georgia launched its offensive on the breakaway province of South Ossetia a week ago.

But on Wednesday Russian armoured vehicles patrolled Gori, a key town linking the east and the west of the country. A convoy of tanks and trucks was also seen on the main road from Gori to Tbilisi.

Hundreds of South Ossetian rebels with some Russian army personnel looted and burned houses in villages near Gori.

Tensions remained high between Russia and the West, with Moscow warning Washington it would have to choose between its partnership with Russia or supporting Georgia.

The United States is the major western ally of Georgia which wants to join NATO.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the United States it has to choose between a "relatively virtual" relationship with Georgia and a "partnership (with Russia) on questions that require collective action."

But US President George W. Bush dispatched Rice to Tbilisi and not Moscow.

"The United States of America stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia, insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected," Bush said.

He ordered US aircraft and naval forces to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies to Georgia.

"To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe, and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis," Bush demanded.

Rice was to hold talks in France with President Nicolas Sarkozy on the peace deal he brokered, before travelling to Tbilisi for talks with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russian troops and armour rolled into South Ossetia on Friday in response to a Georgian bid to regain control of the renegade province which broke from Tbilisi in the early 1990s. Russian troops then pushed on into other parts of Georgia while aircraft bombed targets.

Medvedev halted the offensive on Tuesday saying that Georgia had been "punished" and Sarkozy later negotiated a ceasefire with Medvedev and Saakashvili.

Despite the deal, bitterness remains.

Russia said that while it would talk with the European Union about the truce agreement, it refuses to deal directly with the Georgian president.

"We still have diplomatic relations with Georgia, we have millions of Georgian nationals who are Russian citizens and living happily in Russia," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told BBC television.

"But we won't directly talk to Saakashvili, we won't do that. We offered him peace but not friendship."

Russia has accused Georgia of violating the truce by failing to pursue an "active withdrawal" from South Ossetia, where Moscow says 2,000 civilians were killed in the fighting.

The United Nations estimates some 100,000 people people have been forced from their homes.

The Georgian health minister put the death toll in Georgia at 175 people, mainly civilians. Russia said 74 of its troops had been killed.

Russian investigators said they had opened a probe into whether Georgian forces committed genocide in their attack last week on South Ossetia, RIA Novosti news agency reported.

The first UN and US planes carrying humanitarian aid landed in Tbilisi on Wednesday with tents, blankets and emergency supplies, officials said.

The US Defence Department meanwhile denied comments by Saakashvili that the United States would take over control of Georgia's seaports and airports as part of the humanitarian efforts.

"We do not need nor do we intend to take over any air or seaports in order to deliver humanitarian assistance to those caught in this conflict," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.