Russia sends mixed signals in Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia – A day before the deadline for their promised retreat from Georgian territory, Russian troops showed signs of withdrawal in some places Thursday but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others.

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, had promised the pullback would be completed by today, and the military presence was noticeably lighter in the Georgian city of Gori. Stores reopened, and people began to sweep away debris from last week’s military strikes.

But on the city’s outskirts, Russians still manned checkpoints, and some were installing new artillery positions Thursday afternoon. Columns of military vehicles moved in both directions along the road between Gori and Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

“Pulling out this much equipment takes time,” said a spokesman for the Russian government traveling with journalists through the occupied territory. “If you want me to estimate how much time, I’d say a couple of weeks before you see a major pullout.”

The Reuters news service quoted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, as saying that Russia would install eight new military outposts, putting 500 troops in a security zone in undisputed Georgian territory.

A cease-fire agreement signed last week by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev allows Russian soldiers to operate in such a “buffer zone,” a point Saakashvili reportedly agreed to only reluctantly. The conflict between the two sides began 13 days ago, when Georgian troops moved into disputed South Ossetia and Russian forces then pushed them back.

By Thursday, many of the Georgians who fled the fighting had made their way to refugee centers in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.

Manana Rodiashvili, 55, said Georgians and Ossetians had always been friends in her village, Achabeti.

“I have Ossetian relatives and friends,” she said, massaging her knee, which was swollen after several days of walking to escape the destruction. “But during the war, everyone was hiding.”

Georgian officials said Thursday night that the Russians had begun limiting access to Gori, a key hub on Georgia’s east-west highway, which has been closed since last week.

A Georgian government spokesman said the Russian embassy had requested advance notification of travel there, including “travel objectives and duration, transport vehicles and itinerary.” If enforced, such a rule could impair delivery of humanitarian aid and limit access to the city by diplomats and journalists.

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