No sign that Russians have begun to leave Georgia

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 18, 2008 

IGOETI, Georgia_ A scene from the first day of the Russian army's withdrawal from Georgia:

A Russian army officer waved his finger in the Georgian policeman’s face and bellowed: "You have five minutes to move your cars." The Georgian, addressing the Russian as "Mr. Colonel," pleaded back: "I have an order, I cannot move my cars."

A couple minutes later, the Russian waved his hand, and an armored fighting vehicle plowed through a roadblock of three Georgian police cars, its tracks crushing into their sides.

The deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told reporters in Moscow earlier on Monday that Russian troops were being drawn back to the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which sits just on the other side of the Georgia-Russia border.

But McClatchy journalists in both western and central Georgia saw little sign that was happening. As has been the case during the 10-day conflict, the Russians seemed intent on showing they controlled the ground.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made the point forcefully on Monday. Speaking of a Georgian offensive into South Ossetia that Russia claims started the conflict, Medvedev said, "We shall do our best to not let this crime go unpunished,” according to state news agencies.

In the future, he said, those who attack Russian citizens — many residents of South Ossetia had been given Russian passports — will "face a crushing response."

Late on Monday afternoon, Russian units were still operating with impunity in the center of the country. Their checkpoints stretched as far as Igoeti, only about 25 miles from the capital, where the column of Russian armored vehicles pushed through the Georgian police position.

Russian military convoys also continued to move in and out of Gori, about 40 miles northwest of Tbilisi, including tanks and an anti-aircraft gun. The day before, dozens of supply trucks were seen driving from the direction of South Ossetai into Gori.

The situation was the same in western Georgia, the second flank of the Russian offensive.

There was no evidence of a Russian pullback by mid-afternoon in and around Zugdidi, near Georgia's border with the rebel province of Abkhazia. As they had the day before, Russian tanks occupied the regional police compound there. In the morning, a convoy of 12 Russian military vehicles, including three tanks, rolled south toward the key Black Sea port of Poti.

In Senaki, residents interviewed by telephone said that Russian forces continued to occupy a Georgian air base and other positions in the city, located along Georgia's main east-west highway.

A contingent of Georgian parliamentarians toured villages near the border with Abkhazia and tried to assure worried residents that the Russian presence would end soon. But as they huddled with a group of villagers in Rukhi, about a mile from the last checkpoint before Abkhazia, a Russian military truck rumbled past them along the highway, headed deeper into Georgian territory.

"They should have begun to move out by midday, according to what we were told," said Phridon Todua, a member of parliament from Zugdidi. "But nothing has changed."

(Lasseter reported from Igoeti and Bengali reported from Zugdidi.)

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