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Russia Sets Firm Troop Withdrawal Date, Georgia Skeptical བོད་སྐད།

Russia says all of its forces in Georgia will be withdrawn by late Friday into a 'buffer zone' around the separatist region of South Ossetia, where Georgian troops will no longer be allowed. Georgia, however, doubts Moscow's assurances, and says the boundaries of the buffer zone are not clearly defined. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports from Moscow.

General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of Russia's General Staff, told a Moscow news conference that, once Russian troops are in the buffer zone along the perimeter of South Ossetia, Russia will observe a 1992 peacekeeping agreement with Georgia. However, he says Russia is amending the agreement to exclude Georgian forces from the area.

Nogovitsyn says Georgian leaders recalled their peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia at the start of the invasion and sent them in the direction of the regional capital, Tskhinvali, thus violating the agreement. The general says that, in Russia's view, Georgia, therefore, has no right to engage in peacekeeping activities in the buffer zone.

Georgia disagrees with Russian peacekeeping role

Georgian officials say that Russia is the aggressor, and may not be considered a peacekeeper itself. Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told VOA that the buffer zone around South Ossetia is ill-defined and that Russia is "playing games" with the facts.

Utiashvili says Russian officials show journalists one thing during the day, and return their forces at night. He claims that the number of checkpoints and amount of territory held by Russian forces are not decreasing.

Russian troop movements may be hurting regional economy

Utiashvili says Russian troops still control the main highway between the central city of Gori and Tbilisi, which is not only hurting the Georgian economy, but also that of neighboring Armenia, which receives many of its imports via Georgia.

Meanwhile, thousands of people gathered for independence rallies in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, and Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia. The Russian parliament is expected to review possible Russian recognition of Abkhaz independence, something the region's president, Sergei Bagapsh, is counting on.

Will Russia back Abkhazia's quest for independence?

The Abkhaz leader says Abkhazia does not yet know which position Russia's leadership will take on its independence, but he hopes it will be, "the right one." Bagapsh says, at this point, the most important concern is Russia's position.

Georgian spokesman Utiashvili doubts the sincerity of Abkhaz and South Ossetian demonstrators, saying Russia has thousands of troops in those regions and the demonstrations were merely representing what he referred to as "Russia's official line."

New survey shows Russians blame US influence in Caucasus for Georgia hostilities

Meanwhile, a new nationwide survey by the independent Levada Center in Moscow indicates 49 percent of Russians blame the onset of hostilities in Georgia on an attempt by U.S. leaders to expand American influence in the Caucasus. Only 32 percent blamed discriminatory Georgian policies toward South Ossetians and Abkhazians. Another Levada poll indicates a hardening of Russian public opinion about the United States. Nearly 40 percent consider U.S.-Russian relations to be cool, and 28 percent say they are hostile, twice the figure in 2007.