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Europe

Russia Begins Slow Partial Troop Withdrawal to Rebel Regions

Russian forces began a slow withdrawal from Georgia on Friday, Aug. 22 but were still operating checkpoints despite pledges to leave by the end of the day. Columns were reportedly headed for South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

A column of Russian troops moves from Tskhinvali back to Russia near the village of Dzhava, South Ossetia, Georgia 22 August 2008.

Russia is pulling some of its troops out of Georgian territory but some will remain

As the United Nations again failed to agree on a resolution on the conflict, Russia finally began to withdraw, in line with a French-brokered plan, from the strongly pro-Western ex-Soviet republic.

The Russian general staff said that troops were "in the final stage of pulling back," but they would continue to hold buffer zones and maintain peacekeeping forces in the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"The withdrawal of all Russian troops is going according to plan and we are not going to correct this plan or to increase the speed of the withdrawal," Russian Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in Moscow, rejecting Western criticism of the slow pace of the withdrawal.

The United States has criticized the planned buffer zone as a half-way measure that fails to comply with the ceasefire agreement.

Russian armored columns were moving north from the central Gori sector in South Ossetia, but a defensive cordon remained in place with checkpoints outside Gori and near the Georgian village of Igoeti.

Troops heading for South Ossetia and Abkhazia

A column of Russian armored vehicles seen in the Ardon Valley, Russia

Columns of troops are heading for the rebel regions

Twenty Russian military vehicles carrying hundreds of troops were seen heading north from near the Georgian city of Gori toward the separatist region of South Ossetia, reporters said.

The nine tanks, nine trucks carrying troops and two armored personnel carriers headed towards the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali.

Russian troopers driving northward on the Gori-Tskhinvali road shouted "Russia!" and "We're going home!"

But reconnaissance, tank, and infantry peacekeepers operating checkpoints in the vicinity said they had not received orders to evacuate.

Russian infantry were continuing to dig in on high ground overlooking a river bridge near Igoeti.

Fuel tankers were refueling tanks and armored personnel carriers, and supply lorries were delivering food and water to Russian troops.

The Russian military said 18 additional Russian checkpoints were being set up as part of Russian-controlled buffer zones along the borders between central Georgia and South Ossetia and Abkhazia respectively.

A contingent of 2,142 Russian peacekeeping forces would remain in Abkhazia and 452 troops in South Ossetia, Colonel General Nogovitsyn said.

Russian forces would be out of Georgia proper by 20:00 local time, he said.

Criticism continues over delay

A column of Russian armored vehicles, heading towards the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia, are seen in North Ossetia

The West and Georgia say Russia is dragging its heels

Aleksander Lomia, Georgia's National Security Council head, in mid-afternoon gave Tbilisi's first official acknowledgement of the Russian withdrawal, saying Russian forces "were pulling out, but not fast enough," according to an Interfax report.

International criticism has mounted that Moscow is delaying withdrawing its troops from Georgian territory in accordance with a ceasefire that ended the 10-day conflict.

US President George W Bush called for an end to the Russian "siege" in a telephone conversation on Thursday with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a US ally.

But Russian military commanders brushed aside Bush's demands, saying they were complying with the peace accord.

"The president of the United States is on vacation. Obviously, he is not receiving timely information. We recommend the president's press secretary should pay more attention to our press conferences," Nogovitsyn said.

Russians manning checkpoints along the Tbilisi-Gori road were permitting civilian and humanitarian traffic to pass, but were blocking "unscheduled" diplomats and media.

A Russian national flag flew over the Gori checkpoint.

Georgia's western region also saw substantial Russian withdrawals on Friday, with amour and infantry abandoning Georgian government buildings in the centre of Zugdidi, a town near the border with Abkhazia, the Georgian secessionist province loyal to Moscow.

The western town of Senaki, site of Georgia's largest air base, and the port of Poti, on the Black Sea coast, had seen no reductions in Russian occupation forces by early afternoon on Friday.

Russian forces rolled into Georgia on August 8 to push back a Georgian offensive to re-take control of its rebel South Ossetia region, which won de facto autonomy in a civil war in the early 1990s.

Russian troops also moved forward in Georgia's other breakaway region of Abkhazia, and seized key strategic bases in Georgia, including Poti.

Caucasus region awaits succession announcements

Abkhazia flag

Could the Abkhazia flag fly over an independent state?

On Thursday, tens of thousands gathered in Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia, to demand Russian recognition of their independence.

Over 1,000 people attended a similar rally in South Ossetia's main town and on Friday, the South Ossetia parliament formally asked Russia to recognize its independence, RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Moscow has hinted at giving both recognition in a move that would risk sparking one of the deepest crises between Russia and the West since the Cold War. Russia's two houses of parliament are to discuss the issue Monday.

The Kremlin has suggested that Kosovo serve as a precedent in international law for recognizing the two rebel regions' bid for independence.

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