Russia begins pullout from Georgia

Waves of hulking Russian military convoys rolled out of positions in Georgia on Friday - leaving Senaki, Gori and Igoeti - as Russia tried to fulfill at least part of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's promise to withdraw forces from its small southern neighbour.

In western Georgia, a column of 83 tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks hauling artillery moved away from the Senaki military base north toward the border of the breakaway Abkhazia region yesterday afternoon. Georgian police said the vehicles came from the base which has been under Russian control for over a week.

In central Georgia, at least 40 Russian military vehicles left the strategic city of Gori, heading north toward South Ossetia and Russia. Gori straddles the country's main east-west highway south of South Ossetia, the separatist region at the heart of the fighting.

Russian forces also pulled up from their former checkpoints around the crossroads village of Igoeti. On the road between Gori and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the village had been the Russian's closest position to the Georgian capital.


"We are seeing the pullback of Russian troops" from Gori, Georgian security council chief Alexander Lomaia confirmed yesterday.

Medvedev had promised to have his troops out of Georgia by yesterday - but a top Russian general amended that prediction, saying it could take at least 10 days before the bulk of Russian troops and hardware could be withdrawn.

The short but intense war on Russia's southern border has deeply strained relations between Russia and the West.

Russia has frozen its military cooperation with Nato, Moscow's Cold War foe, underscoring a growing division in Europe. Georgia has wanted to join Nato, a move that angered Russia.

Under the EU peace deal, Russian forces are to pull back to positions they held before intense fighting broke out August 7 in South Ossetia, a separatist province in Georgia that has close ties to Russia. But Russia says it will keep troops in South Ossetia and in a buffer zone in Georgia proper.

Witnesses saw what may have been the last convoy of Russian armoured vehicles to leave Gori shortly after 5 pm local time yesterday. The six vehicles drove off after soldiers fired on a disabled armoured personnel carrier, perhaps not to leave any working equipment behind for the Georgians to seize.

But there were still questions about the extent of the Russian pullout.

Outside Poti, Russian troops were seen digging large trenches yesterday morning near a bridge that provides the only access to the city. Five trucks, several armoured personnel carriers and a helicopter were parked nearby. Another Russian position was seen in a wooded area outside the city.

It was not immediately clear whether those troops remained later in the day.

Poti is far from any zone that Russian troops could be allowed to be in under the ceasefire.

Western leaders remained adamant that Russia remove its troops and do it quickly - but the Russian parliament was expected to discuss recognising the independence of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on Monday.

In South Ossetia, whose capital Tskhinvali suffered the most in fighting, Russian troops were clearly establishing a long-term presence, erecting 18 peacekeeping posts in a so-called "security zone" around the border.

Future offensives

Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia's general staff, said yesterday the move aimed to prevent looters and Georgian arms smugglers. He said Russia still expected Georgia to try future military offensives in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where another further 18 peacekeeping posts are to be set up.

The heavily armed soldiers that Russia calls peacekeepers have been working closely with regular Russian troops and their separatist allies against Georgian forces. A total of 2,142 Russian peacekeepers are to be deployed on the Abkhazia de facto border, while 452 will man the South Ossetia de facto border, Nogovitsyn said. South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity signalled that ethnic Georgians will not be allowed return to the region.

[Source: Gulfnew, Igoeti, Georgia, 22Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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