Russian Forces Leave Parts of Western Georgia Ahead of Deadline

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 14, 2008

BATUMI, Georgia, Sept. 13 -- Russian troops pulled out of positions they had occupied in Poti and other points in western Georgia on Saturday, two days before a deadline agreed to last Monday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

About 200 soldiers packed up three checkpoints in the Black Sea port city of Poti and two in the nearby villages of Khobi and Teklati, moving soldiers and personnel carriers into the disputed breakaway region of Abkhazia, Georgian officials said.

Since mid-August, the Russians had maintained checkpoints in the area, 100 miles from South Ossetia, the separatist enclave where war broke out last month between Georgia and Russia.

Tensions remained high Saturday as a Georgian police lieutenant was killed near a checkpoint at Abkhazia's border, the second such shooting in the past week. Beso Khulordava, 27, was shot twice in the head while manning the Georgian side of the checkpoint; Georgian officials said the shots came from part of the checkpoint manned by Abkhaz troops, who they said denied knowledge of the shooting.

The incident occurred while Russian troops were passing north through the checkpoint, Georgian officials said.

On Wednesday, a Georgian policeman was killed at a checkpoint in the village of Karaleti, on the edge of the Russian-controlled buffer zone around South Ossetia, five miles from the Georgian city of Gori. Russian officials denied knowledge of the shooting, and Georgian officials said Russian troops did not let them cross the border to investigate.

An estimated 800 Russian troops remain in undisputed areas of Georgia, including some in towns in western Georgia and in the buffer zone around South Ossetia. Georgian authorities have not been allowed in the buffer zone, and Russian troops have said they are not responsible for security there. Georgian officials say Ossetian militiamen have been forcing Georgian villagers out of their homes in the zone and burning the houses in an attempt to prevent them from returning.

"They are trying to depopulate everything and make it uninhabitable as long as they can," said Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for Georgia's Interior Ministry. He said an estimated 3,000 Georgian villagers remain in the buffer zone, which had about 30,000 inhabitants before the conflict.

Reports of Ossetians burning and looting towns have been difficult to confirm, but aid workers who were allowed into the buffer zone this past week said the damage was worse the farther north they went, and some said it appeared to be continuing.

In accordance with the agreement with Sarkozy, Russia has said it will pull its troops back to the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Oct. 11 if European Union observers arrive to replace them. But there has been some discrepancy in the way each side has interpreted where the observers will be allowed to go. An understanding that they will be allowed in the "entire territory of Georgia" may have a different meaning for Russia since the Kremlin recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in late August.

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