19 Aug 2008

NATO calls on Russia to pull out troop

8:41 pm on 19 August 2008

NATO countries have called on Russia to respect a peace deal with Georgia and withdraw its troops, but are cool on a United States demand that the alliance consider scaling back ties with Moscow.

The US called the emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers to review relations with Russia.

The meeting of the 27-nation military alliance started in Brussels on Tuesday with no sign of a Russian pull-out, despite Moscow's announcement that a gradual withdrawal was under way.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband says the priority of the talks is to show support for NATO aspirant Georgia and to ensure Russia sticks to a French-brokered accord to end the conflict over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Diplomats say some states - notably those from the former communist east - back the tough US line, but other members such as France and Germany are loath to antagonise Russia, a key energy supplier.

Prior to the meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Russia that it was playing a dangerous game by invading Georgia.

Dr Rice says the West is determined to prevent Russia from winning a strategic victory from its conflict with Georgia.

She says one of the main subjects of the Brussels meeting will be to ensure Russian President Sergei Medvedev keeps his promise to begin withdrawing troops from Georgia.

Russian troops and tanks are still deployed in several areas of Georgia on Tuesday, apparently defying pressure from the West to withdraw quickly.

The crisis began when Georgia attacked South Ossetia on 7 August, which broke free from Tbilisi in a war during the 1990s. Russia launched an overwhelming counter-attack to support the separatists.

The Russian attack - its biggest military deployment outside its borders since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union - included air strikes on economic targets deep inside Georgia, forcing the Georgian army into retreat, and shocked the West.

However, Russian and Georgian forces have exchanged prisoners in a gesture of goodwill despite continued tension over Russia's promised withdrawal from positions in Georgia.

A Reuters correspondent witnessed the exchange 45 kilometres west of Tbilisi. The handover included at least one Russian pilot shot down by Georgian forces.

Ambulances were on the scene and several people were carried on stretchers.