Russia withdraws from some positions in Georgia

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2008 

WORLD NEWS GEORGIA 1 MCT

Russian military vehicles drive out of western Georgia toward the Russian-held region of Abkhazia on Friday, August 22, 2008

SHASHANK BENGALI — Shashank Bengali / MCT

GORI, Georgia — Two weeks after sending troops storming across the Georgian border, Russia pulled its forces out of the city of Gori on Friday and withdrew from a stretch of the main east-west route that they'd used to choke the strategic town.

As evening fell, Russian troops removed concrete barricades from the road to Gori, where residents had been growing impatient with the foreign soldiers, and dozens of trucks crammed with Georgian police officers sped by.

It was a momentous turn in the conflict, in which five days of war were followed by a week and a half of occupation that threatened to paralyze the country.

Although the Russian military was still moving about the area, it seemed to have abandoned Gori — the birthplace of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin — and the route from there to the national capital of Tbilisi to the southeast.

As the Georgian police cars streamed into Gori, their lights flashing in the darkness, residents appeared from the shadows and stared, as though they couldn't believe their eyes.

Giorgi Macharashvili, who was standing near a statue of Stalin in the downtown square, said that one word came to mind when he saw the police: "Freedom."

For all the euphoria, though, serious questions remained. The drawdown followed a pledge by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to recall his troops by Friday, but there were signs that Russia plans to station troops deep in Georgian territory.

The Russians kept positions well outside the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and, to the west, Abkhazia, both of which are at the heart of the conflict.

Because a few Russian military vehicles lingered on the outskirts of Gori, it wasn't clear that the town had been handed over completely.

"Unfortunately, it's up to the Russians," said Shota Khizanishvili, a Georgia police official on the scene.

The Russians still occupied checkpoints just to the north of Gori, leading to South Ossetia, which Georgia tried to retake earlier this month before being pounded by Russia's invasion.

Georgian and U.S. leaders have said that the Russians should move all the way back to South Ossetia, but the Kremlin has maintained that it will enforce a "buffer zone."

In Moscow, a top general dismissed any second-guessing about troop placement, saying that the desires of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili weren't important.

"We'll not consult with Mr. Saakashvili on the buffer zone," said Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff.

There were also concerns about lingering anger over the fierce fighting, in which the Georgians and South Ossetians accused each other of butchery.

Sardioni Beruashvili was in Gori earlier in the day waiting for a bus to take him to Tbilisi. He said he'd fled his village, to the north of Gori, when South Ossetian fighters came in after a Russian bombing run and began burning down houses and shooting men and boys.

"It will be difficult to live near the people who have done this," he said.

A South Ossetian human rights official, in town to monitor a prisoner exchange, said that he, too, worried about future relations.

"It will be very hard for Ossetians to see Georgians," David Sanakoyev said. "All the rockets that bombarded their children . . . came from Georgia."

Nogovitsyn referred ominously to evidence that Georgian troops were "restoring their combat capability and preparing for further action."

Throughout the day, there were explosions at a Russian military base in Gori, where Russian troops continued to destroy Georgian army equipment.

While the Russian military footprint hadn't vanished entirely — armored fighting vehicles and transport trucks motored back and forth — it was clear that a large-scale withdrawal was under way. "Now everything will be OK. They're leaving," said Giorgi Geladze, a Georgian police officer who'd been waiting about eight miles outside Gori in a long row of police trucks. "We've been waiting for this."

There was a chaotic, rushed feel to the scene as the police waited for the go-ahead. Georgian police commanders and Russian soldiers shouted conflicting orders. A farmer drove by, his car crammed with peaches from the orchards, honking the horn and holding a Georgian flag out of his window. In the grain fields nearby, a string of fires burned brightly; the police blamed Russian soldiers for starting them on their way out.

In western Georgia, far from the heaviest fighting of the war, Russian forces retreated from key positions in Zugdidi, at the edge of the Russian-controlled Abkhazia, and Senaki, where they'd occupied a Georgian military base since Aug. 12.

However, Russian soldiers were constructing a makeshift base in Chkhorotsku, 30 miles north of the town of Senaki, and they continued to hold two positions outside Poti, Georgia's main Black Sea port.

In Chkhorotsku, residents watched as a dozen Russian soldiers moved rocks and dirt to create what the residents feared was a military installation along a main road. Two tanks flew the tricolor Russian flag. A member of the United Nations staff in western Georgia, which is monitoring a buffer zone along the border with Abkhazia, said that the outposts were "far outside" the zone where Russian peacekeeping forces were mandated to operate. The staff member requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists.

A McClatchy reporter counted more than 90 Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks Friday afternoon in a convoy that was headed out of Georgian-held territory toward Abkhazia.

"It's a relief. We feel safer now," said Jobava Tomo, a gap-toothed 52-year-old who watched from the roadside as a small collection of Russian troops and tanks vacated a Georgian police headquarters in Zugdidi where they'd camped for several days.

Several hours later, however, all was not calm in Zugdidi. A handful of Georgian police officers stood nervously outside the building, now ringed by yellow police tape.

"Mines," explained one young police officer, who declined to give his name. "We think the Russians put mines all over the place."

The overgrown brush surrounding the headquarters suddenly seemed filled with hidden dangers. The officers had called for a demining team hours earlier, but no one had arrived. Inside, they said, the Russian soldiers had seized computers and furniture, and destroyed whatever they couldn't carry.

More from McClatchy:

Russia testing world resolve, Sen. Graham says

Cease-fire pact may give Russians cover to stay in Georgia

Edgy Georgians now thinking about resisting invasion

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