GORI, Georgia – Russian troops pulled out of occupied Georgian lands Friday, loosening a chokehold on strategically crucial towns, railroad routes and roadways.
Although the withdrawal was the most dramatic Russian concession to date, it was not total.
Washington quickly lashed out at Moscow for failing to remove all of its troops and hardware from the land of its smaller neighbor. The French and U.S. presidents agreed that Russia is still failing to carry out its obligations under a French-brokered cease-fire agreement, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Crawford, Texas.
“It’s my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory, and they need to do that,” Johndroe said.
For hours, Russian troops drained out of this city, dismantling checkpoints they’d erected along the road toward the Georgian capital. They were also abandoning sites they’d seized in western Georgia, according to news reports.
Finally, a crane hauled the last concrete blocks off the highway near Gori, freeing up the road to Tbilisi for the first time in days. Georgian police piled into pickup trucks and poured back into this garrison town, reasserting their control over a chunk of the country they’d been forced to flee.
Two weeks ago, Russia sent thousands of troops pouring into Georgia, after Georgia launched a surprise military operation to force the breakaway province of South Ossetia back under central control.
An indignant Moscow has repeatedly said it was forced to intercede to save its citizens: Most residents of the rebel province carry Russian passports, and Russian peacekeepers had been stationed in the republic for years.
But Russian troops pushed deep into Georgia proper, paralyzing the country’s main east-west transit lines and occupying villages some 25 miles from the Georgian capital. Moscow’s aggressive military response drew condemnation from the United States and Europe – and so had Russia’s seeming reluctance to follow through on pledges to relinquish control of the seized land.
Questions still cloud the standoff between Russia and Georgia. Negotiations loom over the fate of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s two breakaway Moscow-backed republics.
More immediately, it’s not clear when Russia will withdraw from the rest of Georgia. There is also debate over how much of Georgia will be patrolled by Russian troops, who are expected to establish a buffer zone between the rebel regions and the rest of Georgia.
“Today, they told us several versions of this,” said Shota Khizanishvili, a Georgian police official. “What will be the last version, we will see.”