Russian troops have started dismantling positions in the so-called security zones inside Georgia that they have occupied since the war in August, Georgian and EU officials said.
Moscow faces a Friday deadline for pulling back its troops under the terms of a deal brokered by French president Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union. Hundreds of EU observers began monitoring Russia’s compliance last week.
A pullback would probably mean at least a mild reduction of tensions between Russia and the West following their worst confrontation since the Soviet collapse. But substantial points of dispute remain.
Russia was dismantling positions yesterday inside what it calls security zones, extending about four miles inside uncontested Georgian territory.
But Moscow vows to keep thousands of its troops stationed in two separatist Georgian regions that it recognises as independent countries – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which appears to stretch the terms of the ceasefire and which the Georgian government condemns.
Tensions also rose sharply on Friday when a car bomb killed nine people when it exploded outside Russian forces’ headquarters in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.
South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity said investigators had found demonstrable “Georgian traces” in the explosion and said security would be tightened by reducing the number of crossing points from Georgia into the republic to two, the Interfax news agency reported.
South Ossetian officials previously claimed that Georgian special services were behind the bombing, aiming to undermine the ceasefire.
The war began on August 7 when Georgian troops launched an offensive to regain control of South Ossetia, one of two Georgian separatist regions where Russia has troops stationed as peacekeepers.
Russia sent a large force that quickly routed the Georgian military and pushed deep into the former Soviet republic, occupying large swathes. Russia then declared the security zones about four miles south of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In late August, Russian troops mostly pulled back to those so-called security zones and last month they pulled out of some more positions, including six checkpoints and temporary bases in and near the Black Sea port of Poti.
The Russian 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. And the occupation of uncontested Georgian territory has deeply strained relations between Moscow and the West.
The EU-brokered agreement now obliges Russia to pull its troops out of the security zones by Friday. It also calls for both sides to return troops to the positions they held before the fighting broke out – but Russia’s announced plan to keep some 8,000 troops in the regions well exceeds the number reportedly there before the fighting began.
Russia recognised the independence of both regions after the fighting. So far, only Nicaragua and the Hamas government in Gaza have followed suit with recognition.
Yesterday, troops lowered the flag at a Russian base in Nadarbazevi, about 30 miles north west of the capital Tbilisi. Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili described that position as a “communications centre” and said Russia had promised to leave it completely today.
Mr Utiashvili also said a checkpoint was dismantled in Ali – also called Nabakhtevi – in the zone around South Ossetia. And Russian forces were leaving another position in Zugdidi, within the zone south of Abkhazia, he said.
“We have to see how it ends, but so far this is a good sign,” Mr Utiashvili said.
Hansjorg Haber, the head of the EU monitoring mission, said his observers confirmed the dismantling.
Georgian and EU officials could not immediately clarify how many Russian positions in total would have to be dismantled to meet the agreement’s terms. After the war, Russia said it would set up a total of 36 checkpoints in the security zones – 18 in each.