KARALETI, Georgia (Reuters) – Russian troops started pulling back from buffer zones outside South Ossetia on Wednesday, two months after Russia’s brief war with Georgia which increased tension with the West.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the withdrawal would be completed by midnight, in line with a ceasefire deal brokered by France on behalf of the European Union.
A Reuters reporter followed a convoy of about 20 military trucks and armored vehicles out of the main Karaleti checkpoint and saw it cross the de facto border with breakaway South Ossetia, 20 km (12 miles) further north.
Interfax news agency later quoted a Russian Defense Ministry official as saying Russian troops had already closed down all six of its checkpoints in the buffer zone around South Ossetia.
The zones were created outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another region that has unilaterally broken away from Georgia, after Russia sent tanks and troops to repel a Georgian offensive to retake pro-Russian South Ossetia in August.
Russia plans to keep 7,600 troops in the rebel regions, which it recognized as independent states after the war.
Russia’s counter-offensive against the former Soviet republic drew condemnation from the West, and deepened fears over the security of the Caucasus as a transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to western Europe, bypassing Russia.
“By 24:00 today the Russia peacekeeping contingent will leave the security zones in South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Medvedev told a conference in the French city of Evian.
He said the EU had shown itself to be a pragmatic and responsible partner during the Georgian crisis, in a speech peppered with criticism of the United States.
In western Georgia, a Reuters television reporter saw a column of 50 to 60 Russian military vehicles leave the Urta military base and cross the Inguri river into Abkhazia.
An unarmed EU observer mission is monitoring the pullback. Mission head Hansjoerg Haber told reporters of “very positive developments” and said he would report back to Brussels for the final verification.
The United States welcomed signs of a pullback.
“I am pleased that Russia appears to be fulfilling its obligation under the ceasefire to withdraw in compliance with Friday’s deadline in Georgia,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Russia said the focus would shift to international talks in Geneva on October 15, where it will call for an embargo on the sale of offensive weapons to Tbilisi, and for a security mechanism around Abkhazia and South Ossetia to prevent Georgian attacks.
“In these areas adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia a special regime should be established that will not allow anyone to carry out provocations,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
The five-day war in August followed months of skirmishes between separatists and Georgian troops.
South Ossetia, a small region with a population of about 70,000, broke away from Georgia in a 1991-92 war.
Abkhazia fought a war in the early 1990s to drive out Georgian forces. The region’s separatist authorities say it has a population of 340,000, but Tbilisi puts the figure lower.
Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership for Georgia, sent the army to try to retake South Ossetia in August.
Russian troops drove the Georgian army out of South Ossetia, and pushed further into Georgia, saying they needed to prevent further Georgian attacks.
The West has condemned Russia for a “disproportionate response” to Georgia’s actions and has repeatedly demanded that Moscow pull its troops out of core Georgia.
Temur Iakobashvili, Georgia’s minister for re-integration, said Tbilisi would not consider the pullout complete “as long as there are remnants of Russian forces.”