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Russia starts large-scale withdrawal

Troops depart much of Georgia proper. But the pullout falls short of that agreed to in a cease-fire, U.S. says.

August 23, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

GORI, GEORGIA — Russian troops pulled out of occupied Georgian lands in a large-scale withdrawal Friday, loosening a chokehold on a broad swath of strategically crucial towns, rail lines and roadways.

Although it was the most dramatic Russian concession to date, the withdrawal was not total. Washington quickly lashed out at Moscow for failing to remove all of its troops and hardware from the land of its smaller neighbor. The French and U.S. presidents agreed that Russia continues to fail to carry out its obligations under a French-brokered cease-fire agreement, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said at President Bush's ranch outside Crawford, Texas.

"It's my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory, and they need to do that," Johndroe said.

For hours, Russian troops drained out of this city, dismantled checkpoints they'd erected all along the road toward the Georgian capital, and crunched back toward the rebel regions in long columns of tanks and personnel carriers. They also were abandoning sites they'd seized in western Georgia, according to news reports.

Finally, against the backdrop of a smeared pastel sunset, a crane hauled the last concrete blocks out of the highway near Gori, opening the road to Tbilisi for the first time in days. Georgian police piled into pickup trucks and poured back into this garrison town, reasserting their control over a chunk of the country they'd been forced to flee. As if the Russians were not still lingering on the edge of town, policemen strutted on the main square and spun through the back streets, red and blue lights pulsing in the darkness.

Russia sent thousands of troops pouring into Georgia two weeks ago, after Georgia launched a surprise military operation to force the breakaway province of South Ossetia back under central control. An indignant Moscow has repeatedly said it was forced to intercede to save its citizens: Most residents of the rebel province carry Russian passports, and Russian peacekeepers had been stationed in the republic for years.

But Russian troops pushed deep into Georgia proper, paralyzing the country's main east-west transit lines and occupying villages 25 miles from Tbilisi.

Moscow's aggressive military response drew condemnation from the United States and Europe -- and so had Russia's seeming reluctance to follow through on pledges to relinquish control of the seized land.

Explosive questions still cloud the standoff between Russia and Georgia. Negotiations loom over the fate of Georgia's two breakaway, Moscow-backed republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

More immediately, it's not clear when, or even whether, Russia will withdraw from the rest of Georgia. There is also debate over how much of Georgia will be patrolled by Russian troops, who are expected to establish a buffer zone between the rebel regions and the rest of Georgia.

"Today they told us several versions of this," Shota Khizanishvili, a Georgian police official, said derisively. "What will be the last version, we will see."

In Gori, at least for the moment, a sense of deep relief, and even a small measure of liberation, swept the war-scarred city. Hundreds have been killed in the fighting and about 158,000 forced from their homes. On Friday, for the first time in days, the fear and anxiety that have gripped the streets of Gori receded. Word spread through the twilight: The Russians are gone.

Residents hauled chairs outside beneath their grape arbors, uncorked bottles of homemade wine and watched the Georgian police trucks winking blue and red through the night. Priests loitered in the darkened streets before the main church, drinking beer and talking on their cellphones, robes stirring in the hot wind.

"For the first time, the city is light again, and we're having fun, drinking," said Zura Takneshvili, a 45-year-old barber. A Georgian police car slid past, and he pointed. "Look, our guys! This is a victory for Georgia."

Explosions rattled the city and surrounding hills throughout the afternoon. Russian troops were blowing up the remains of Georgia's military property, both Georgian officials and Russian soldiers said.

"They're blowing up all the equipment they can't take with them," Gori police chief Merab Arobelidze said. "They grabbed everything they could get their hands on. They took our uniforms and even our restroom equipment."

The steady swap of prisoners has emerged as another sign that Russia and Georgia are inching back into a more peaceful, if uncomfortable, status quo.

On Friday, Georgian authorities delivered five prisoners of war into the hands of South Ossetians. The men were driven into Gori from Tbilisi in white pickup trucks, then left waiting in the hospital parking lot for more than an hour. When one of them complained that he needed to use the bathroom, the Georgians ignored his pleas.

Despite their ratty camouflage clothes, the prisoners were older, and they looked emaciated and skittish.

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