By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 22, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia, Aug. 21 -- A day before the deadline for their promised retreat from Georgian territory, Russian troops showed signs of withdrawal in some places Thursday but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others.
Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, had promised the pullback would be completed by Friday, and the military presence was noticeably lighter in the Georgian city of Gori. Stores reopened, and people began to sweep away debris from last week's military strikes.
But on the city's outskirts, Russians still manned checkpoints, and some were installing new artillery positions Thursday afternoon. Columns of military vehicles moved in both directions along the road between Gori and Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.
"Pulling out this much equipment takes time," said a spokesman for the Russian government traveling with journalists through the occupied territory. "If you want me to estimate how much time, I'd say a couple of weeks before you see a major pullout."
The Reuters news service quoted Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, as saying that Russia would install eight new military outposts, putting 500 troops in a security zone in undisputed Georgian territory.
A cease-fire agreement signed last week by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev allows Russian soldiers to operate in such a "buffer zone," a point Saakashvili reportedly agreed to only reluctantly. The conflict began two weeks ago, when Georgian troops moved into disputed South Ossetia and Russian forces then pushed them back.
Reuters reported that Russia had halted all military cooperation with NATO, a move that carries broad implications for future collaboration on such issues as joint exercises and the sharing of expertise.
Russia has also issued Russian passports to many residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway republic.
By Thursday, many of the Georgians who fled the fighting had made their way to refugee centers in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.
Manana Rodiashvili, 55, said Georgians and Ossetians had always been friends in her village, Achabeti.
"I have Ossetian relatives and friends," she said, massaging her knee, which was swollen after several days of walking to escape the destruction. "But during the war, everyone was hiding."
Georgian officials said Thursday night that the Russians had begun limiting access to Gori, a key hub on Georgia's east-west highway, which has been closed since last week.
A Georgian government spokesman said the Russian Embassy had requested advance notification of travel there, including "travel objectives and duration, transport vehicles and itinerary." If enforced, such a rule could impair delivery of humanitarian aid and limit access to the city by diplomats and journalists.
"This is ridiculous," said Shota Utiashvili, an Interior Ministry spokesman. "If they ask you to get a Russian visa if you want to travel from Washington to Baltimore, that's what it looks like."
Aid has been streaming into Georgia, with a large number of relief organizations delivering food and supplies around Tbilisi and to villages in the Gori area. About $10.7 million in U.S. humanitarian aid has arrived.
Checkpoints into the city operated erratically Thursday, with some travelers being allowed through and others being stopped.
France's ambassador to Georgia, Eric Fournier, was detained for three hours at a checkpoint as he returned from a town northwest of Gori where France provides language training to mountain rescue troops.
Fournier said that he did not believe that he had been specifically targeted but that "we considered it officially as an unacceptable development in Paris."
Georgian officials said Russian troops had released 10 Georgian soldiers who were among 22 detained Wednesday in the city of Poti. Russian forces also took several Humvees owned by the U.S. Army and were later seen towing them north toward Russia.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said it had discovered large numbers of unexploded cluster bombs around villages north of Gori.
"I'm very, very concerned that children will pick these up," said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst for the group, adding that the presence of the bombs constituted an "indiscriminate campaign against Georgian citizens."
Correspondent Jonathan Finer contributed to this report.