SUKHUMI, Georgia (Reuters) – Russia has started to withdraw soldiers it sent to repair railways in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, a spokesman for the troops said on Wednesday.
Georgia, the United States and the NATO military alliance have criticized Russia, which supports separatists in Abkhazia, for sending the unarmed soldiers to the impoverished Black Sea region in May.
Georgia has accused Russia of trying to annex Abkhazia, the scene of one of the former Soviet Union’s most intractable conflicts. Russia said the deployment of the railway troops was humanitarian aid.
The spokesman for the railway troops said 150 soldiers had left the region this week and the rest would leave Abkhazia after a ceremony in the local capital Sukhumi.
“The remaining 250 railway troops will leave Abkhazia after the ceremony,” the spokesman said.
Railways chief Guram Gubaz told the Russian troops: “We congratulate you for your excellent and responsible work. We are very thankful to you and we hope there will be no more wars in Abkhazia.”
Abkhazia and another Georgian breakaway region, South Ossetia, have been the focus of rising tension between Russia and Georgia. Western governments fear friction could spiral into a war that could destabilize the Caucasus region.
Russia and the United States are competing for influence in the Caucasus, which the West sees as a vital route for exporting oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets.
Both the rebel regions are internationally recognized as part of Georgia but they threw off Tbilisi’s control in separatist wars in the 1990s and now run their own affairs with Russian support.