Russian troops out of Georgia buffer zones

18:22, 08 October 2008
World
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Georgian Interior Ministry confirmed

Russian troops completed a pullback on Wednesday from buffer zones next to breakaway Georgian regions that it had established during a war between the two countries in August, a Georgian official said, Reuters reported.

"We can confirm that from the so-called buffer zones the withdrawal is complete," Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.

There was no immediate confirmation from a European Union mission monitoring the pullback from the two zones, which are on Georgian territory adjoining the rebel, pro-Russian areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Mission head Hansjoerg Haber said earlier in the day that Russia "seems to have completed most of the withdrawal" but that verification continued.

Interfax news agency quoted a Russian Defence Ministry official as saying Russian troops had closed down all six of their checkpoints in the buffer zone around South Ossetia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had said the withdrawal would be completed by midnight, ahead of a Friday deadline contained in a cease-fire deal brokered by France on behalf of the EU.

The zones were created outside the two regions, which have unilaterally broken away from Georgia, after Russia sent tanks and troops to repel a Georgian offensive to retake South Ossetia in August.

Russia plans to keep 7,600 troops in the rebel regions, which it recognised as independent states after the war.

A Reuters reporter followed a convoy of about 20 military trucks and armoured vehicles out of the main Karaleti checkpoint and saw it cross the de facto border with breakaway South Ossetia, 20 km (12 miles) further north.

In western Georgia, a Reuters television reporter saw a column of 50 to 60 Russian military vehicles leave the Urta military base and cross the Inguri river into Abkhazia.

Russia`s counter-offensive against the former Soviet republic drew condemnation from the West, and deepened fears over the security of the Caucasus as a transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to western Europe, bypassing Russia.

Announcing the withdrawal, Medvedev praised the role of the EU in ending the crisis in a speech heavily critical of Georgia`s main backer, the United States.

SECURITY MECHANISM

"I want to stress the constructive role of the European Union in finding a peaceful option for overcoming the Caucasus crisis," Medvedev told a conference in the French city of Evian.

"When other forces in the world were reluctant or incapable of doing this, it was in the European Union that we found a ... responsible and pragmatic partner."

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Macedonia, said: "I am pleased that Russia appears to be fulfilling its obligation under the cease-fire to withdraw in compliance with Friday`s deadline in Georgia."

Russia said it would call at talks in Geneva on October 15 for an embargo on the sale of offensive weapons to Tbilisi, and for a security mechanism around Abkhazia and South Ossetia to prevent Georgian attacks. 

The five-day war in August followed months of skirmishes between separatists and Georgian troops.

South Ossetia, a small region with a population of about 70,000, broke away from Georgia in a 1991-92 war.

Abkhazia fought a war in the early 1990s to drive out Georgian forces. The region`s separatist authorities say it has a population of 340,000, but Tbilisi puts the figure lower.

Georgia`s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership for Georgia, sent the army to try to retake South Ossetia in August.

Russian troops drove the Georgian army out of South Ossetia, and pushed further into Georgia, saying they needed to prevent further Georgian attacks.

The West has condemned Russia for a "disproportionate response" to Georgia`s actions and has repeatedly demanded that Moscow pull its troops out of core Georgia.

Utiashvili said Georgia would push for Russia to quit both rebel regions.

"We want negotiations on a full Russian withdrawal from Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he said.

Reuters
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