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Europe

Russia Begins Troop Withdrawal, but Unease Remains in Georgia

The Kremlin announced it had begun its first substantial troop pullbacks in Georgia, but army-operated road and rail checkpoints remained in place throughout the areas occupied by Russian forces.

A Russian tank passes through Tskhinvali, South Ossetia

Russian troops have begun a withdrawal to South Ossetia buffer zone

Combat elements of Russia's 58th Army were evacuating the vicinity of the north Georgian town Gori and would return to Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia over the next two days, a Russian army spokesman told the Interfax news agency on Thursday, Aug. 21.

The first 100-vehicle column had reached the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali by 9 a.m. Thursday morning, the official said.

Georgian media showed images of Russian tanks and personnel carriers moving north from Gori, but Russian road checkpoints remained in place, eyewitnesses said.

In western Georgia, Russian ground forces had reportedly evacuated the territory of the port of Poti by Wednesday evening, which, according to the Kremlin, was a preparatory step toward reboarding Russian warships stationed off shore.

The port's ferry wharf was functioning normally but freight traffic was minimal as Russian forces had blocked railroad lines leading east from Poti, port officials said.

Eyewitness account

Russian soldiers ride atop of an armored personnel carrier in Igueti, northwest of the capital Tbilisi

Roadblocks have remained in place throughout several regions in Georgia proper

A column of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery moved across the border from Georgia into Russia on Thursday, a Reuters reporter said.

"I can see 21 T-72 tanks moving towards the Roki tunnel in the direction of Russia," said the reporter at the tunnel, which is a few kilometers from the Georgia-Russia border and is the main access route for Russian forces.

"I can also see four Grad artillery launchers, several armored personnel carriers, and heavy trucks ready to move into the tunnel," the reporter added.

Russia: OSCE withheld information

Deputy Chief of the Russian military's General Staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said Thursday that Russia's military had no plans to leave South Ossetia or the buffer zone around it.

Russian Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn

Russian Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn says Russian forces will remain in South Ossetia

He also accused the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of covering up Georgia's military preparation ahead of last week's offensive to re-take its breakaway region of South Ossetia.

"There are doubts over the OSCE's role during the initial stage of the conflict. They were notified by the Georgian side that there would be an invasion, but did not warn Russian peacekeepers," Nogovitsyn said. "This fact makes us reconsider our relations ... It is an obligation of the OSCE (to report on troop movements) and they must answer for it."

Russian checkpoints still restricting movement

Russian troops were digging in on the main road approach to the port of Poti, Georgia's Rustaveli-2 television channel reported.

Russian tanks and infantry were reportedly still holding the inland towns of Zugdidi and Senaki. As in the Gori sector, Russian soldiers were operating road checkpoints and blocking all Georgian government traffic, and permitting civilian vehicles through only after inspection.

France's ambassador to Tbilisi was "blocked for several hours" at a Russian checkpoint not far from Gori, the French foreign ministry said, the AFP news agency reported.

"He is now in the embassy" in Tbilisi, said a ministry spokesman in Paris.

Russian army officials have said the road checkpoint system is necessary for security in Russia-controlled areas of Georgia.

Georgia's government has accused Russia of reneging on an Aug. 11 cease-fire agreement stipulating, among other conditions, a removal of all Russian forces from Georgian territory.

NATO criticism forces Russian revaluation

NATO headquarters in Brussels

NATO foreign minister toughened their stand against Russia at a meeting this week

Following remarks by several NATO foreign ministers -- regarding Russia's push and continued occupation of Georgian territory after fighting -- Moscow announced it was "reconsidering" its cooperation with NATO, a high-ranking Russian diplomat told Interfax on Thursday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko was quoted by the agency as saying any review of relations would "of course affect the military cooperation program."

The Interfax report follows Wednesday's developments, when the Norwegian Defense Ministry said Russia had informed it of plans to "freeze all military cooperation" with the alliance.

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