United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it appears Russian troops are withdrawing from key positions in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, nearly two months after a brief war ended between Russian and Georgian troops. He made the comments on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Budapest, where defense ministers pledged political and practical support for Georgia, but ruled out delivering weapons to the country. Stefan Bos reports from Budapest.
The two-day NATO summit in Budapest concluded with the first ever ministerial meeting of the NATO-Georgia Commission, which was set up to solidify ties between the Western military alliance, and the former Soviet nation.
They gathered Friday, as a deadline expired for Russia to withdraw troops from buffer zones near Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Ahead of the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters there were indications that Russian troops are withdrawing under a European Union brokered ceasefire agreement.
But he also criticized Russia's military actions in Georgia. "Unfortunately their behavior has undermined security in the region," said Gates. "I am pleased that Russia appears to be fulfilling its obligations under the ceasefire to withdraw in compliance with tomorrow's deadline."
Yet, Russia has made clear it will keep nearly 8,000 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow recognized the two areas as independent states, following a brief war between Russian and Georgian forces in August.
NATO has condemned the move and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance would continue to support Georgia's territorial integrity. However, he ruled out NATO's military involvement in the area.
"The Georgian Defense minister of course heard firm support for Georgia's territorial integrity," said de Hoop Scheffer. "We discussed NATO's stepped-up support for Georgia's defense reform. To avoid any misunderstandings NATO will not supply any weapons to Georgia. But we can and do provide guidance and expert advise to Georgia as it sets it own priorities."
He added that NATO will help Georgia to recover from its recent conflict by providing, as an example, capabilities to get a better air picture of the situation on the ground.
De Hoop Scheffer stressed, however, the Budapest meeting was not used to assess Georgia's readiness to join the alliance. He said the first assessment will be made by NATO foreign ministers in December in Brussels.
Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili said his government wants to join NATO soon, despite Russian opposition. "We hope that our continued good performance and alliance performance based policy will enable us to make swiftly the next step on our direct way to NATO membership," he said.
Earlier Friday, NATO defense ministers focused their attention on Afghanistan. They authorized their troops in Afghanistan to attack drug runners who are blamed for pumping up to $100 million a year into the coffers of Taliban militants.
However, soldiers will only be able to attack drug facilities if authorized by their own governments, and only drug producers deemed to be supporting the insurgency will be targeted, till Afghan forces are able to take on the task.
NATO defense ministers will review the mission when they meet again in February in Poland.
De Hoop Scheffer said he was less satisfied with other military commitments to the mission in Afghanistan, including his call for more retooled helicopters to reduce the time injured soldiers have to wait on the battle field before receiving medical assistance and to improve overall security.
The military alliance also looked at other security threats in the world, including Somalia, where it agreed to send a seven-ship force to protect ships of the United Nations Food Program against piracy. Pirates have attacked dozens of vessels and are still holding ships, including a Ukrainian cargo ship seized laden with heavy weapons.