WASHINGTON - Russia has moved short-range SS-21 missile launchers into South Ossetia since fighting there halted, and has yet to give any sign of a significant pullback of its troops from Georgia, US officials said Monday.
Instead, there were indications that Russia was adding ground troops and equipment to its force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, strengthening its hold over the breakaway Georgian regions, the officials said.
"We are seeing evidence of SS-21 missiles in South Ossetia," a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The SS-21's 70 to 120 kilometer range (43 to 75 miles) should put them within striking distance of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, officials said.
Later Monday, another US defense official said, "While we are still monitoring the situation and it is probably a little early, we have not seen any significant Russian movement out of Georgia today."
The White House would not comment on the status of the Russian forces in the Caucasus country Monday.
"But let me be clear: If it rolled in after August 6th, it needs to roll out," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
"That would be in keeping with the Russian commitment on withdrawal," he said, as US President George W. Bush spent time on his Texas ranch.
Without confirming that a Russian buildup was underway in the enclaves, a Pentagon spokesman said: "Anything such as that or any other military equipment that was moved in would be in violation of the ceasefire and should be removed immediately."
"The only forces that are permitted to remain under the ceasefire agreement are the forces that were in there at the August 6th timeframe" before the conflict erupted, said spokesman Bryan Whitman.
In Moscow, a Russian general denied that SS-21s had been deployed in South Ossetia.
"There was no need for it," General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said at a briefing for journalists.
But the US defense official said several SS-21 launchers and associated equipment entered the enclave after the fighting came to a halt last week.
The New York Times, which first reported on the move, said they entered South Ossetia on Friday.
"We're seeing them solidify their positions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," said the official, adding that "more troops and more equipment" were evident in the enclaves.
The official said at least 10 battalions of Russian troops were in the enclaves and in Georgia, putting the number of Russian troops at close to 15,000.
It was unclear whether the SS-21s which allegedly arrived Friday were the first to enter Georgia.
Deputy National Security Advisor Jim Jeffrey said a week ago that President George W. Bush, in Beijing at the time for the Olympic Games, was immediately notified August 8 "when we received news of the first two SS-21 Russian missile launchers into Georgian territory."
Bush then immediately met with Russian President Vladimir Putin about it at the Great Hall of the People, Jeffrey said.
Russia has launched about two dozen short-range missiles during the course of the conflict, which erupted August 7 with a Georgian military incursion into South Ossetia and escalated with an all-out Russian offensive two days later, a senior US defense official said last week.
The SS-21 is the NATO designation for what the Russians call the "9K79-1 Tochka-U," which Nogovitsyn said was "widely used" by Russian forces.
A tactical ballistic missile, the SS-21 can carry conventional, chemical or tactical nuclear warheads.
US officials have made no suggestion that nuclear armed missiles have been deployed in this conflict.
Copyright 2008 AFP
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