Russian Forces in Georgia Appear to Begin Pullout

October 8, 2008 - 5:01 AM
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Karaleti, Georgia (AP) - Russian forces began the final stage of a pullback from positions outside Georgia's separatist South Ossetia region, bulldozing a camp at a key checkpoint as EU monitors looked on.
 
A Russian general said the withdrawal would be completed Wednesday.
 
Moscow must withdraw its troops from buffer zones surrounding South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, by Friday under an agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy after Russia's war with Georgia in August.
 
The pullback may ease tensions somewhat but will not resolve major disputes pitting Russia against Georgia and Western countries, which have condemned Moscow's invasion of the ex-Soviet republic and its recognition of the separatist regions as independent nations.
 
On Wednesday morning, a small base at the Russian checkpoint in Karaleti was almost completely gone, and Russian solders were sweeping for mines as two bulldozers leveled the site.
 
A Russian armored personnel carrier blocked the road, which leads north from Georgian-controlled territory toward South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali. But the concrete slabs that had served as a roadblock were gone.
 
A handful of Russian military trucks stood ready to remove the remaining troops, and four European Union monitors stood by a pair of blue EU light-armored vehicles.
 
Speaking at the Karaleti checkpoint, the head of Russian peacekeeping troops based in South Ossetia, Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, said the withdrawal from all six posts on the edge of the buffer zone was under way and should be finished by day's end.
 
EU monitors have been patrolling the buffer zone since Oct. 1 under the withdrawal agreement, a supplement to the initial cease-fire Sarkozy brokered on behalf of the EU in August.
 
The governor of the Georgian region where Karaleti is located, Vladimir Vardezelashvili, said Georgian police would move into the buffer zone as the Russians withdraw. Black-uniformed police with Kalashnikovs stood by, closer to the checkpoint than they had in recent weeks.
 
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were also on hand at the six posts that were to be withdrawn from the area outside South Ossetia, said Heikki Lehtonen, deputy chief military officer for the OSCE mission to Georgia.
 
The war erupted when Georgian forces launched an attack targeting Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 in a bid to take control of the region, which broke away in a war during the early 1990s. Russian troops, tanks and warplanes swiftly repelled the attack and drove deep into Georgia in Moscow's first major military offensive beyond its borders since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
 
Russian forces occupied large portions of Georgia for weeks after the war and reinforced positions around the edges of South Ossetia and Abkhazia even as troops pulled back from posts deeper in the ex-Soviet republic.
 
Russia has said it will keep nearly 8,000 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for the foreseeable future, plans the U.S., EU and NATO say violate a commitment to withdraw to pre-conflict positions under the cease-fire.
 
The war broke out after years of increasing tension between Russia and Georgia, whose pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili has cultivated close ties with Washington and pushed to bring his nation into NATO.
 
Georgia straddles a key route for westward export of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region, giving it added geopolitical importance amid deteriorating relations between Russia and the West over the past several years.