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Russian military pulls out of key areas inside Georgia

Saturday, August 23, 2008

GORI, Georgia -- Columns of hulking, smoke-belching Russian tanks rolled out of key positions deep inside Georgia on Friday as Moscow declared it had pulled its forces out following the worst confrontation between the Kremlin and the West since the Soviet collapse. But the United States, France and Britain protested the withdrawal was not complete.

Georgians exulted in a new sense of freedom as the Russian troops departed.

Outside Igoeti, the closest Russians got to the capital of Tbilisi, Georgian police in a convoy of cars and pickup trucks pumped their fists and waved white-and-red national flags as they trailed behind two Russian tanks pulling out ahead of them.

An Associated Press reporter saw what may have been the last convoy of Russian armored vehicles leave Gori shortly after 5 p.m. Friday. The six vehicles drove off after soldiers fired on a disabled armored personnel carrier, perhaps not to leave any working equipment behind for the Georgians to seize.

A few hours later, Gori was empty of Russian forces.

"We are in control of the streets of the city of Gori," Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said outside city hall.

The withdrawal came two weeks to the day after thousands of Russian soldiers roared into the former Soviet republic following an assault by Georgian forces on the capital of the separatist territory of South Ossetia. The conflict left hundreds dead, several cities destroyed and nearly 160,000 people homeless.

Russian columns left Georgia's western Senaki military base, Gori and Igoeti, 30 miles from Tbilisi.

But troops and armored personnel carriers stayed put in at least three positions near Senaki and the Black Sea port city of Poti, raising questions about Russia's intentions. The Russians also said they were creating so-called security zones extending into Georgian territory to prevent future attacks.

President Bush, vacationing at his ranch in Texas, conferred with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and "the two agreed that Russia is not in compliance and that Russia needs to come into compliance now," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

"Compliance means compliance with that plan," he said. "We haven't seen that yet. It's my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory, and they need to do that."

The Russians "have without a doubt failed to live up to their obligations," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington. "Establishing checkpoints, buffer zones, are definitely not part of the agreement."

Georgia's state minister on reintegration, Temur Yakobashvili, told the AP formation of a buffer zone outside South Ossetia "is absolutely illegal."

In South Ossetia, Russian troops erected 18 peacekeeping posts in a so-called "security zone" around its border with Georgia. Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia's general staff, said Friday that peacekeepers would establish another 18 peacekeeping posts around Abkhazia.

A total of 2,142 Russian peacekeepers are to be deployed on Abkhazia's de facto border, while 452 will man the South Ossetia de facto border, Nogovitsyn said.

In Moscow, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said the pullback into South Ossetia was finished late Friday.

In western Georgia, a column of 83 Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks hauling artillery drove north from the Senaki military base toward the breakaway Abkhazia region along the Black Sea coast on Friday afternoon. Georgian police said the vehicles came from the base, which has been under Russian control for over a week.

The convoy doubled in size as it rumbled slowly north, and it took hours to cross into Abkhazia.

In central Georgia, at least 40 Russian military vehicles left the strategic city of Gori, heading north in the direction of South Ossetia, the Roki Tunnel and Russia beyond.

An AP reporter in Igoeti confirmed Russian forces had pulled out from their former checkpoints and roadside positions around the village. Located on Georgia's main highway between Gori and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Igoeti had been the Russians' closest position to the Georgian capital.

Georgians milled around a checkpoint near Gori for hours before a crane came to heft the cement blocks from the road and traffic started to filter through. A few Russian soldiers lingered near the site.

Russia's invasion and brief occupation of uncontested Georgian territory has deeply strained relations between Moscow and the West.

Russia has frozen its military cooperation with NATO, Moscow's Cold War foe, underscoring a growing division in Europe. Georgia's pro-Western leaders are pushing to join NATO, angering a resurgent Russia.

The major fighting began Aug. 7 when Georgia launched an artillery and rocket barrage targeting Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia -- which has survived since the 1990s with the patronage of Moscow and the protection of troops Russia calls peacekeepers.

Russian forces arrived in less than 24 hours, quickly drove the Georgians back and pressed deep into Georgia.

Under an EU-brokered cease-fire deal, both sides are to pull back to positions held before the fighting erupted.

Western leaders have called for a complete withdrawal of Russian combat troops from Georgia, and for peacekeeping forces to resume the positions they had in South Ossetia before the conflict.

But as Russia set up posts around the edges of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, questions remained about whether it was withdrawing all its forces from deeper in Georgia.

In western Georgia, an AP photographer say troops and armored personnel carriers still deployed at three Russian positions after nightfall -- one on the outskirts of Poti, one at a crossroads near the Senaki base and another further north along he road toward Abkhazia.

Poti is far from any security zone envisioned by Western governments.

And after a long Russian column crossed into Abkhazia, Russian armored vehicles and troops with blue helmets and the Russian initials for Peacekeeping Forces headed in the opposite direction, into Georgia proper.

"I remain deeply concerned that Russian forces have not withdrawn to the pre-Aug. 7 position as agreed," British Foreign Minister David Miliband said late Friday night.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said the cease-fire deal allows Russian peacekeeping forces to operate only "in the immediate proximity of South Ossetia" and only in patrols -- suggesting the West considers the new Russian posts outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia as violations.

Regardless of Friday's withdrawal, Russia, Georgia and the West seem certain to continue the diplomatic struggle over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from Georgia's control in wars following the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Russian parliament was expected to discuss recognizing the independence of the separatist regions Monday.

In an interview with the AP, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity signaled that ethnic Georgians will not be allowed to return as payback for the ethnic Ossetians who could not return to Georgia after a previous conflict.

"There is nothing left anymore" for them to come back to, he noted.

In the village of Achabeti, an AP reporter saw Ossetians remove chairs, window frames and whatever else they could carry from abandoned Georgian houses.

Russian emergency officials arrived in Achabeti to evacuate elderly Georgians who were too frail to flee. The Georgians were taken to Gori, where officials were trying to get in touch with their relatives.

Many of the elderly were happy to be evacuated, having been left with no food or care. But some thought it was an effort to deport all Georgians from Ossetia.

"They are erasing this village from the face of earth so that Ossetians would come here," Aliosh Maisuradze, 83, said with tears in his eyes.

The U.N. estimates 158,000 people have fled their homes due to the fighting. The United States has carried out 20 aid flights to Georgia since Aug. 19, and three U.S. warships were heading toward Turkey carrying blankets, hygiene kits and baby food to Georgia.


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