The statement by Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn came amid uncertainty about whether Russia was fulfilling President Dmitry Medvedev's promise to begin the pullout Monday. Earlier in the day, Russian forces around the strategic Georgian city of Gori had shown no sign of moving away and even appeared to be solidifying their positions.
But Nogovitsyn told a briefing that "today, according to the peace plan, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers and reinforcements has begun." He added that forces were leaving Gori, a strategic Georgian city 55 miles west of the capital Tbilisi.
Gori sits on Georgia's only significant east-west road, meaning Russian occupation could effectively cut the country in half.
The RIA-Novosti news agency reported that some Russian military vehicles were heading Monday out of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali toward Russia.
According to the European Union-brokered peace plan signed by both Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, both sides are to pull forces back to the positions they held before last week's outbreak of war in the Russian-backed Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia, but also provides for unspecified extra security measures such as patrol rights for the soldiers Russia calls peacekeepers.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised the withdrawal, but how quickly the troops will leave is unclear, as is exactly where they will redeploy.
Nogovitsyn said the Russian troops are pulling back to South Ossetia and security zone defined by a 1999 agreement of the "joint control commission" that had been nominally in charge of South Ossetia's status since it split from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Georgian and Russian officials could not immediately clarify the dimensions of the security zone.
"I think the Russians will pull out, but will damage Georgia strongly," Tbilisi resident Givi Sikharulidze told an AP television crew. "Georgia will survive, but Russia has lost its credibility in the eyes of the world."
Russia is certain to keep some troops in South Ossetia - which wants to separate from Georgia - and the region's president Eduard Kokoity on Monday asked Russia to establish a permanent base there, the agency said.
CBS News in Moscow reports that Kokoity also dismissed his Cabinet and declared a month-long emergency to cope with the aftermath of the armed conflict. He announced that he would not accept international observers in his region again: "We have no confidence in these international observers, in these people who corrupt the truth," he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Medvedev of "serious consequences" in Moscow's relations with the European Union if Russia does not comply with the cease-fire accord.
Medvedev had told Sarkozy that Russian troops would begin pulling back on Monday, headed toward South Ossetia. He stopped short of promising they would return to Russia.
Top American officials said Washington would rethink its relationship with Moscow after its military drive deep into its much smaller neighbor and called for a swift Russian withdrawal.
"I think there needs to be a strong, unified response to Russia to send the message that this kind of behavior, characteristic of the Soviet period, has no place in the 21st century," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.
But neither Gates nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be specific about what punitive actions the United States or the international community might take.
Rice, who was flying to Europe for talks Tuesday with NATO allies about what message the West should send to Russia, said Russia can't use "disproportionate force" against its neighbor and still be welcomed into international institutions.
"It's not going to happen that way," she said. "Russia will pay a price."
CBS News in Moscow reports that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin has met with U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle, where diplomats discussed a wide range of issues, from troop withdrawal to humanitarian aid, during a two-hour meeting
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a report issued Monday, "It was pointed out to the U.S. that U.S. officials' public statements on the events in South Ossetia need to be brought into compliance with the reality of the difficult situation in the region."
Gorbachev: "Talk Of 'Liberating Our Land' Must be Dropped"
In an article published in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that Georgia's president had assurances of assistance from foreign governments prior to the outbreak of hostilities last week, and warned that any non-political resolution to the situation would be disastrous.
He wrote, "Russia was dragged into the [military] crisis as a result of the adventure by Saakashvili who would not dare to start it without outside support."
Gorbachev wrote, before judging affairs in the Caucasus and especially before trying to influence them, one has to have an idea about this complex region: Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia and "the same applies to the entire region - there is such ethnic overlapping in literally all countries … And all this talk of 'This is our land, we are liberating our land' must be dropped.
"One should not try to resolve the problems of the Caucasus by force. Such attempts have been numerous and every time the result has been the same. A legally-binding agreement on the non-use of force is needed. If the West helped to reach such an agreement, it would do a good job. If it takes a different road of condemning Russia and rearming Georgia - and U.S. officials are already speaking of that - a new aggravation is inevitable and the outcome will be even worse," Gorbachev said.
Missile Launchers Reported Within Range of Tbilisi
The war broke out after Georgia launched a barrage to try to retake control of South Ossetia, a Russian-backed separatist region that split off in the early 1990s. Russia had peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia and sent in thousands of reinforcements immediately, driving out Georgian forces. Georgian troops also were driven out of the small portion they had held in another separatist region, the Black Sea province of Abkhazia.
Russian troops also took positions deep into Georgia, including Gori, about 50 miles west of the capital, and in the Black Sea port of Poti. They also began a campaign to disable the Georgian military, destroying or carting away large caches of military equipment. An AP photographer saw Russian troops guarding rows of captured Georgian military vehicles Sunday in Tskhinvali.
Bolstered by Western support, Georgia's leader vowed never to abandon its claim to territory now firmly in the hands of Russia and its separatist allies, even though he has few means of asserting control. His pledge, echoed by Western insistence that Georgia must not be broken apart, portends further tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The New York Times, citing anonymous U.S. officials who were familiar with intelligence reports, reported Sunday that the Russian military moved missile launchers into South Ossetia on Friday.
The U.S. officials told the Times that Russia deployed several SS-21 missile launchers to positions north of Tskhinvali. That would put the missiles within range of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, the Times reported on its Web site.
Russian peacekeepers were also in control of a Georgian power plant Sunday near Abkhazia.
Humanitarian Efforts Continue
In Gori, there were signs of a looser Russian grip - but also scenes of desperation as Georgians crowded around aid vehicles Sunday, grasping for loaves of bread. Virtually all shops were closed and the streets were almost empty, save for those seeking aid.
"I wouldn't say there's a humanitarian catastrophe, but there's an urgent need for primary products," Georgian national security council head Alexander Lomaia told journalists Monday on the outskirts of Gori.
Nearby, Russian troops inspected a Georgian humanitarian aid vehicle Monday before allowing it to enter Gori.
Georgia's government minister for refugees, Koba Subeliani, said there were 140,000 displaced people in Tbilisi and the surrounding area.
The U.S. European Command said Monday that Brig. Gen. Jon Miller had arrived in Georgia to assess the need for further humanitarian aid. So far, at least six U.S. military flights carrying aid have arrived in Tbilisi, ferrying everything from cots, sleeping bags and medicine to emergency shelters and syringes.
In Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was meeting Monday and may decide whether to increase its mission in Georgia with another 100 unarmed military monitors. The OSCE already has a 200-member monitoring mission in Georgia.