Russian troop withdrawal begins but checkpoints remain

The Kremlin began its first substantial troop withdrawals from Georgia on Thursday, but army-operated road and rail checkpoints remained in place throughout the Russian area of occupation, dpa reported, refer to Interfax.

Combat elements of Russia's 58th Army were evacuating the vicinity of the north Georgian town Gori and would return to South Ossetia over the next two days, a Russian army spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

The first 100-vehicle column had reached the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali by 9 am Thursday morning, the official said.

Georgian media showed images of Russian tanks and personnel carriers moving north from Gori, but Russian road checkpoints remained in place, eyewitnesses said.

Russia's Vesti television later on Thursday showed images of a massive column of combat vehicles exiting the Caucasus Mountain underpass the Roki tunnel, and entering Russian territory.

Russian efforts to demolish Georgian military capacity reportedly still were nonetheless still in progress in the Gori sector, with a powerful explosion reported in the vicinity of the village Osiauri, site of a Georgia army base, according the civil.georgia news site.

During the past few days, Russian forces in and around Osiauri have been blowing up ammunition and Georgian army equipment, eyewitnesses said.

In Georgia's West, Russian ground forces reportedly had evacuated the territory of the port of Poti by Wednesday evening, according to the Kremlin a preparatory step to reboarding Russian warships on station off shore.

The port's ferry wharf was functioning normally but freight traffic was minimal as Russian forces had blocked railroad lines leading east from Poti, port officials said.

Russian troops were digging in on the main road approach to the port, Georgia's Rustaveli-2 television channel reported.

Russian tanks and infantry were reportedly still holding the inland towns of Zugdidi and Senaki. As in the Gori sector, Russian soldiers were operating road checkpoints and blocking all Georgian government traffic, and permitting civilian vehicles through only after inspection.

Russian army officials have said the road checkpoint system is necessary for security in Russia-controlled areas of Georgia.

A total of 18 checkpoints manned by Russian soldiers would operate in Georgian territory near South Ossetia's border, after the withdrawal is complete.

Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia's vice chief of general staff, gave the number of Russian army "peacekeepers" manning the checkpoints outside South Ossetia, and within South Ossetia, at some 1,000 - 500 at the checkpoints within Georgia, and another 500 within South Ossetia.

All other Russian forces would return to Russian territory by the end of Friday, he said at a Moscow press conference. The Russian checkpoints would not include the key Georgian road hub Gori, he added.

Russian warships involved in landings on Georgia's Black Sea coast would return to their home port Sevastopol in Ukraine on Friday, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a fleet officer.

Georgia's government has accused Russia of reneging on a August 11 ceasefire agreement stipulating, among other conditions, a removal of all Russian forces from Georgian territory.

Romanian President Traian Basescu arrived in Tbilisi on Thursday to meet with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili. The Romanian leader was accompanied by humanitarian aid to be distributed to Georgian displaced persons, Georgia media reported.

Demonstrations in favour of independence from Georgia were in progress Thursday in the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi, and the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. The state-sponsored gatherings drew 50,000 and 4,000 participants respectively.

Both enclaves have requested Russia recognise them as separate from Georgia. Russian diplomats have not given a formal opinion on the idea, but have pointed out parallels between international recognition of Kosovo's secession from Serbia, and the future political status of the two Georgian provinces.

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