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Russian Troops Pull Out of Georgia's Buffer Zone

Caucasus: Moscow says the 'peacekeeping' operation is over.


MOSCOW — A day after launching what it called a peacekeeping operation, Russia retreated Saturday from a volatile buffer zone near the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia following sharp protests from Georgia and the United Nations.

Russian officials had said they moved into the upper Kodori Gorge on Friday to reestablish a security checkpoint. But a day later, they said their "patrolling" had been completed.

Georgian officials had denounced the Russian operation as an invasion. The United Nations observer mission in the region described it as "aggressive" and "combative" and demanded an immediate withdrawal.

A spokesman for the U.N. mission confirmed Saturday evening that the Russian withdrawal had concluded.

The surge in tension occurs as U.S. military trainers are preparing to arrive in Georgia to help arm and train the nation's army. The American forces had been expected to arrive last month.

To defuse the situation, Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin spoke by telephone Saturday.

The incident "must not cause a radical exacerbation of relations with Russia," Shevardnadze said afterward.

The Russian commander, Maj. Gen. Alexander Yevteyev, insisted that the operation in the Kodori Gorge, in the buffer zone near separatist Abkhazia, had not violated a peacekeeping protocol signed by Russia and Georgia on April 2, and he said similar patrols will follow.

The Russian forces, nominally under the control of the group of ex-Soviet republics known as the Commonwealth of Independent States, "will continue to patrol the lower and the upper part of the Kodori Gorge in compliance with the protocol no less than once a week," Yevteyev said.

The Kodori Gorge is one of two major hot spots in Georgia, which has seen clashes involving several separatist movements as well as spillover violence from Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya, on its northern border.

Russian troops have been stationed as peacekeepers in Abkhazia since 1994. Georgian officials bristle at Moscow's presence and accuse the Russians of siding with the rebels. However, Georgia's own armed forces are in disarray and unable to control the situation.

Russian commanders said Saturday that the peacekeepers had been fired on during their brief deployment in the upper Kodori Gorge, and the commanders blamed Georgia for failing to withdraw all its forces from the region as required under the April 2 agreement.

"According to the provision, Georgian troops should have been withdrawn from the upper and the lower part of the Kodori Gorge by April 10 of this year," Yevteyev said. "The U.N. secretary-general's special envoy to Georgia will be informed about the violations."

Shevardnadze's envoy to the separatist region, Emzar Kvitsiani, denounced the Russian accusation as "an invention."

Under the agreement, Georgian units were obliged to depart from the gorge last week to clear the way for U.N.-monitored peacekeeping patrols. The U.N. observer mission said it had warned the Russians in advance that the operation in the upper Kodori Gorge would violate the agreement.

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