NADARBAZEVI, Georgia – Russian troops on Sunday began dismantling positions in the so-called security zones inside Georgia that they have occupied since August’s war, Georgian and EU officials said, a sign Russia will fulfill its pledged pullback.
Moscow faces a Friday deadline for pulling back troops under the terms of a deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union. Hundreds of EU observers began monitoring Russia’s compliance last week.
Russia was dismantling positions inside what it calls security zones, extending roughly four miles inside uncontested Georgian territory.
But Moscow vows to keep thousands of troops stationed in two separatist Georgian regions that it recognizes as independent countries – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which appears to stretch the terms of the cease-fire and which the Georgian government denounces.
Tensions also rose sharply on Friday after a car bomb killed nine people when it exploded outside Russian forces’ headquarters in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.
South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity on Sunday said investigators had found demonstrable “Georgian traces” in the explosion and said security would be tightened by reducing the number of crossing points from Georgia into the republic to two, the Interfax news agency reported.
South Ossetian officials previously alleged that Georgian special services were behind the bombing, aiming to undermine the cease-fire.
The war began Aug. 7 when Georgian troops launched an offensive to regain control of South Ossetia, one of two Georgian separatist regions where Russia has troops stationed as peacekeepers.
Russia sent a large force that quickly routed the Georgian military and pushed deep into the former Soviet republic, occupying large swaths. Russia then declared what it called a security zone inside Georgia south of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In late August, Russian troops mostly pulled back to those so-called security zones, and last month they pulled out of some more positions, including six checkpoints and temporary bases in and near the Black Sea port of Poti.
The Russian presence in Poti had been particularly galling for Georgia because it is hundreds of miles from South Ossetia, where the war broke out and where most of the fighting occurred. And the occupation of uncontested Georgian territory has deeply strained relations between Moscow and the West.
On Sunday, troops lowered the flag at a Russian base in Nadarbazevi, about 30 miles northwest of the capital, Tbilisi. Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili described that position as a “communications center” and said Russia had promised to vacate it completely today.
Utiashvili also said a checkpoint was dismantled Sunday in Ali – also called Nabakhtevi – in the zone around South Ossetia. Russian forces were leaving another position in Zugdidi, within the zone south of Abkhazia, Utiashvili said.
“We have to see how it ends, but so far this is a good sign,” Utiashvili said.