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Russian Troops Leave Western Georgia

Hundreds of Russian forces packed up and withdrew from positions Saturday in western Georgia, and a Georgian official said Russia met a deadline for a partial pullout a month after the war between the two former Soviet republics.

Russian soldiers and armored vehicles rolled out of six checkpoints and temporary bases in the Black Sea port of Poti and other areas nearby, Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said.

"They have fulfilled the commitment" to withdraw from the area by Sept. 15 under an agreement European Union leaders reached with Russia last week, Lomaia told The Associated Press. But he stressed that Georgia - like the West - demands a full withdrawal to pre-conflict positions.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko confirmed the withdrawal.

"Right now the withdrawal of our peacekeeping forces is happening from these posts," Nesterenko said in televised comments.

However, Lomaia said some 1,200 Russian servicemen still remain at 19 checkpoints and other positions, 12 outside South Ossetia and seven outside Abkhazia.

Russia said it would pull them out by Oct. 11 as long as a 200-strong delegation of European Union observers was in place by Oct. 1. However, OSCE documents seen by The Associated Press have raised questions over Russia's true willingness to accept the monitors.

The presence of Russian troops dug in deep in undisputed Georgian territory more than a month after the fighting ended has deeply angered Georgians and been an enormous sore point between Russia and the West.

Russia's military campaign in Georgia and its subsequent recognition of Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations has plunged its relations with the United States and Europe into their worst crisis since the Cold War.

An Associated Press television crew saw Russian soldiers pack military trucks before dawn Saturday with blankets and other supplies at a post by a road leading to Abkhazia province. Among the items taken down - the Russian tricolor flag.

Four trucks stood packed and ready to leave the post in the village of Pirveli Maisi, along with an armored personnel carrier. A Russian column about the same size rolled past on a road leading to Abkhazia.

Russian forces left the two posts they had maintained for weeks on the outskirts of Poti, one by a bridge on a main road leading into the city and one a few miles from Georgia's main port and devastated naval base, Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said.

"Russian forces have withdrawn completely from Poti," he said.

A third Russian post established more recently by the port of Poti had also been vacated, Lomaia said. He said some 250 soldiers and 20 armored vehicles pulled out of their positions and headed toward Abkhazia.

Near the de facto border with Abkhazia, an Associated Press photographer saw several small columns of Russian armor crossing a bridge leading toward the breakaway region and military trucks heading across another bridge at a separate location.

The brazen presence in Poti had been particularly galling for Georgia because it is hundreds of miles from South Ossetia, where the war broke out and where most of the fighting occurred.

Under an additional agreement forged last week, the Kremlin promised to withdraw from Poti and other posts in western Georgia by Monday and from all its positions on Georgian territory outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia within 10 days of the deployment of EU observers.

But in Vienna, confidential OSCE documents revealed that Russian forces and their separatist militia allies were deliberately keeping international monitors out of South Ossetia, where large numbers of Georgian homes have been looted and burned down.

The documents obtained Friday by The Associated Press say Russian troops stopped some observers from entering South Ossetia as recently as two days ago.

Western governments also say Moscow's plans to maintain 7,600 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the long term violates a provision in the cease-fire calling for both sides to return to positions held before the conflict erupted.

Georgian troops tried to retake South Ossetia by force on Aug. 7, but were quickly repelled by Russian tanks, troops and warplanes. The Russian military then drove deep into Georgia, occupying large swaths of territory before an initial withdrawal in late August.

The five-day war killed hundreds of people and drove over 150,000 people from their homes.
By Associated Press Writer Steve Gutterman
By Associated Press Writer Steve Gutterman

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