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Russia: Withdrawal to begin Monday but extent is uncertain

ZUGDIDI, Georgia — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday that troops would begin to withdraw from neighboring Georgia on Monday but signaled that forces would continue to occupy the breakaway province at the center of the 10-day-old conflict.

Medvedev's pledge — made in a phone conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to the Kremlin — was immediately greeted with skepticism by U.S. and Georgian officials who have accused Russia of pushing deeper into Georgian territory despite signing a ceasefire pact.

"The fact is that Russia has broken all its promises ... for the last several days," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."

In a news conference earlier, Saakashvili reiterated that "Georgia will never give up a square kilometer of its territory." But Russian troops showed no signs of leaving South Ossetia, the pro-Moscow province where the conflict ignited on Aug. 8, or the western separatist province of Abkhazia, where Russian forces reportedly seized a power plant over the weekend in defiance of the ceasefire.

Medvedev gave no timeline for the withdrawal and few specifics, saying only that Russian forces would withdraw to a security zone demarcated by a 1999 agreement "and to the territory of South Ossetia itself."

The conflict has pit Russia against the United States and its European allies in a standoff reminiscent of the Cold War. Tiny Georgia, whose U.S.-educated president is an enthusiastic friend of the Bush administration, has been overrun by a Russian military that appears determined to re-establish its authority in a region once controlled by the Soviet empire.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the United States and its European allies were considering "a broad menu" of possible penalties for Russia, including blocking Moscow from membership in the World Trade Organization. Admitting Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — a move that Russia strongly opposes — also remained "on the table," Gates said.

"I think that one of the consequences of what Russia has done, frankly, is to make all of their neighbors very apprehensive," Gates said. "Those in the near abroad, those in Eastern Europe and others who had experience with the Soviet Union in the bad old days ... they've seen some familiar behavior here and they don't like it."

Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of Medvedev: "Yet again the Russian president has given his word. This time I hope he'll honor it."

The Russian state news agency Itar-Tass reported that Russia had begun "a partial withdrawal" of some troops from South Ossetia. But Russian forces remained in control of Georgia's main east-west highway and had access to the strategic Black Sea port of Poti.

In Zugdidi, a Georgian town about five miles south of Abkhazia, about two dozen Russian military trucks rumbled down the main road shortly after 9 a.m. The trucks appeared to be empty and headed in the direction of Poti, leading residents to speculate that the Russians were resupplying themselves with military equipment.

The regional police headquarters in Zugdidi remained occupied by Russian forces, with several tanks parked around the building and uniformed soldiers peering out from fourth-floor windows. An adjacent government building that residents said Saakashvili once used as a temporary residence was also surrounded by Russian tanks.

One Georgian police officer, who would not give his name, insisted that police controlled the town but added, "The Russians can move wherever they like."

A United Nations official in Zugdidi, which lies inside a U.N.-monitored buffer zone, said that Russia could be building up an arsenal inside Abkhazia and the buffer zone before pulling back its forces.

"It's a window for them to leave things behind," said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

Lela Darsalia, a hair salon owner, said that she hoped Russia would pull back its forces and return Abkhazia to Georgian control. But Darsalia said she was alarmed by the comments of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said Saturday that Russia would take "as much (time) as is needed" to withdraw its military units.

"Lavrov has said Russia will do whatever they want," said Darsalia, 36. "That is what worries us. We don't trust them."

(David Goldstein of the Washington Bureau contributed.)