Georgian Pres. doubts Russians will withdraw

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) - August 20, 2008 - Saakashvili said Russia's army is thinning out its presence in some of the towns it occupies, but at the same time is seizing new territory in the former Soviet republic.

"What we're seeing now is a clear regrouping and also, again, some kind of deception campaign, saying, 'Look, we're moving out,"' Saakashvili told The Associated Press in an interview at his office in the capital, Tbilisi.

The Russians, he said, "are making fun of the world."

Russia sent tanks and troops into its small Caucasus neighbor after Georgia launched a heavy artillery barrage Aug. 7 against the separatist, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia. Russian forces moved deep into Georgia and continue to hold positions as close as 30 miles from the capital.

AP reporters saw a diminished Russian presence in one key Georgian town, Gori, on Wednesday, two days after Russia promised to begin a withdrawal.

Saakashvili said that while Russia is pulling troops in some places, "They are going around now and trying to grab new strategic areas in Georgia."

With his military unable to mount real resistance and his international allies offering little support, Saakashvili finds himself with few real cards other than pleading for more help.

"We still expect more" of the international community, he said. "We still believe this is not all, that this is just a beginning."

If the Russian occupation stretches on, he suggested Georgians might begin peaceful protests and "passive resistance" in occupied areas. He noted one small protest held in the town of Igoeti on Tuesday, one of the few examples of such activities so far.

Saakashvili also said Georgians will "hold hands together ... and they will reconstruct."

There would be no violence, he predicted, so as not to give Russia an excuse for retaliation. Russia, he said, is "dreaming to turn my country into Chechnya, into some kind of insurgency warfare field where they go around and operate with brutal force."

Georgians appeared to rally around Saakashvili's government during the fighting, but that could change in the coming months.

Saakashvili said he was not concerned: "The last thing I'm worried about is about my political future right now."

The popularity of his government, he said, "will depend on how we will perform, how well we rebuild."

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