Relief for Georgia as Russian forces begin withdrawal


GEORGIA:RUSSIA LAST night began its long-awaited withdrawal from the central Georgian city of Gori, with dusty mile-long columns of tanks and armoured vehicles pulling out of their forward positions and heading north back to Russia.

According to witnesses, forces began pulling out of the city at noon local time, nine days after sweeping into Gori and blockading the main highway connecting the east and west of the country.

The withdrawal follows a series of delays and mixed signals from the Kremlin about when, and indeed if, it intended to leave Georgia. It also came amid intense international pressure from the US, EU and others for an immediate pull-out.

"We're going home. Our mood is marvellous, beautiful. We came here, experienced war, and are all going back in one piece," Osman, a 23-year-old Russian soldier from Dagestan, said last night. He added: "The only shame is we didn't make it as far as Tbilisi."

Georgian police in American-style jeeps followed and were last night camped not far from Gori, waiting to take over the town.

However, last night Russian troops had still not retreated from the village of Nadarbazevi, 10 miles east of Gori and on the main Tbilisi highway. An armoured vehicle flying the Russian flag continued to block the road. It was not clear how long the checkpoint would remain.

Under the text of the ceasefire agreement brokered by Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian forces are obliged to withdraw to the "line" they occupied "prior" to Georgia's disastrous incursion into South Ossetia on August 7th and 8th.

Russia has insisted that an earlier agreement allows it to station troops in a "buffer security zone" between Gori and South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali. Georgian and western diplomats say this is a clear breach of the ceasefire deal.

Last night Shota Utiashviavi, a spokesman for Georgia's interior ministry, welcomed Russia's apparent departure, but said Moscow's pull-out was so far partial. "There's been no withdrawal from western Georgia. They are putting up checkpoints in [the port of] Poti. The ceasefire agreement clearly says that they don't have any right to block any major road or to be in major urban areas," he said.

"We have to see whether they leave the administrative borders of South Ossetia," he added. "The occupation continues." Russia has suggested its new buffer zone could extend eight miles into territory previously controlled by Georgia.

Many Georgians, however, last night expressed joy at Russia's apparent pull-out. "It's beautiful. I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I feel free," Koba Chirodze (41), from Vanni, near Gori, said.

With Russia ending its invasion, attention will now shift to Georgia's pro-western leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. His decision to attack South Ossetia is now likely to be seen as a reckless gamble.

That Russia provoked Georgia is unquestionable, but what is unclear is where Saakashvili fell into what many regard as a perfect trap.

Georgia's opposition has until now been solidly united behind the president during the country's greatest crisis since independence.

But in the coming weeks it will almost certainly demand his removal. More than 125,000 people have been uprooted by the conflict. In theory Saakashvili will remain in office until 2013 following his re-election in January.

Russia, meanwhile, appears to have achieved all of its major strategic goals: scuppering Georgia's attempts to join Nato, destroying its army and infrastructure, and humiliating Saakashvili.

- (Guardian service)