Russia Stages a Substantial Withdrawal

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 23, 2008

GORI, Georgia, Aug. 22 -- Russia pulled troops and armored vehicles out of vast swaths of seized territory and ended its 10-day occupation of this Georgian city Friday, but Georgian and foreign officials disputed Russia's claim that it had complied with the terms of a recent cease-fire agreement.

Columns of Russian trucks, tanks and artillery pieces rumbled north throughout the day toward the breakaway territories whose disputed status sparked the current crisis. Just before leaving Gori at 8 p.m., Russian forces detonated giant explosions on various Georgian armories and military installations that spewed flames and black smoke into the sky.

The Russian withdrawal was a major step toward ending the slow-burning conflict that ignited into full-scale war Aug. 7 when the Georgian army invaded South Ossetia. Russian forces responded swiftly and sharply, seizing as much as a third of Georgian land.

But the Russian retreat now underway leaves many contentious issues unresolved, including the future deployment of thousands of Russian soldiers and South Ossetian militiamen aligned with them who remain in undisputed Georgian territory. Whether the disputed territories -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast -- will remain part of Georgia, seek independence or be annexed by Russia is also unclear.

"I think what happened today is encouraging but unacceptable until the last Russian soldier leaves my country," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in a telephone interview late Friday. "What they are still doing, making explosions, camping by the road, digging positions, does not look to me like cease-fire. It looks like warfare."

Officials in the United States, which along with several European countries has pressured Russia to leave Georgia, agreed. "We are not seeing that they are in compliance right now," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said at a briefing in Crawford, Tex., where President Bush is spending time at his ranch. "They have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territories, and they need to do it."

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told reporters Friday night in the southern Russian city of Sochi that the Russian withdrawal had been completed "without incident and according to schedule."

Under the terms of the cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy more than a week ago, Russian forces were supposed to return immediately to the pre-conflict boundaries, though Russia says the accord also allows its forces to monitor the conflict zone.

Georgian officials see little distinction between Russian peacekeepers and Russian soldiers.

In the western part of Georgia, Russian soldiers continued to man checkpoints near the port in the city of Poti and remained on a military base at Senaki, about 30 miles south of the border with the disputed territory of Abkhazia, Georgian officials said.

In the east, Russian forces abandoned posts on the key trade corridor linking the capital, Tbilisi, with central Georgia but retreated only to the village of Karaleta, two miles north of Gori -- the largest city held during the occupation. From there, they continued to man checkpoints and field camps along the main highway running north toward South Ossetia.

Russia says such checkpoints will eventually be manned by Russian peacekeepers, distinguishable from regular soldiers by their blue armbands bearing the letters "MC," the Russian initials for peacekeeping forces. But the uniforms worn by newly arrived Russian troops Friday evening bore no such insignia. The troops quickly settled into makeshift, roadside camps behind five-foot berms and concertina wire.

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