September 10, 2008 / 6:03 AM / 11 years ago

Russia troops prepare to leave Georgia buffer zone

KHOBI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian soldiers began dismantling checkpoints in western Georgia on Wednesday in line with a French-brokered ceasefire deal, but disagreement broke out over the international force that will replace them.

A Russian peacekeeper is seen at the checkpoint in the village of Khobi, September 8, 2008. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Underlining the fragility of the ceasefire that ended last month’s brief war between Russia and Georgia, a Georgian policeman was shot dead near a Russian checkpoint in another part of the ex-Soviet state.

Moscow’s intervention in Georgia last month, in which its forces crushed an attempt by Tbilisi to retake its breakaway South Ossetia region, drew widespread international condemnation and prompted concern over the security of energy supplies.

Russia agreed on Monday to pull back its troops from undisputed Georgian territory, a presence Western governments said was illegal. It will, though, keep about 7,600 troops inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second separatist region.

A Reuters television reporter saw soldiers removing concrete blocks and wooden posts in a Russian-declared buffer zone outside Abkhazia, in what appeared to be the first phase of a Russian pullback brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The mayor of nearby Poti, a Black Sea port which is pivotal to the Georgian economy, said armoured vehicles had been removed from two checkpoints. “They are actively dismantling the checkpoints,” Mayor Vano Saginadze told Reuters.

EUROPEAN FORCE

Western governments have so far shied away from imposing sanctions on Moscow, in part because for many of them Russia is the principal energy supplier.

The next phase of the Russian pullback — a complete withdrawal to inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia — will begin when an international force of ceasefire monitors, including a 200-strong EU contingent, is deployed.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he did not recognise the validity of a document, signed by Sarkozy in Tbilisi on Monday, saying the EU “stands ready to deploy monitors in the whole of Georgian territory.”

Lavrov said that contradicted a deal signed by Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier the same day in Moscow, which he said made clear the EU monitors would only operate outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“It is a completely unscrupulous attempt not to honestly explain to (Georgian President Mikheil) Saakashvili what commitments the EU had taken on itself, and what commitments Russia had undertaken, but to be led on a string by Mr Saakashvili,” Lavrov said.

In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the bloc hoped it could take part eventually in monitoring missions inside Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But he said this had not been discussed with Russia on Monday.

SHOOTING

Russia has said it sent troops into Georgia to stop Tbilisi committing “genocide” against the separatists. The Kremlin has since recognised the two separatist regions as independent states, in defiance of the West.

Georgia on Monday accused Russia of violating the ceasefire after the death of the police officer at a checkpoint near South Ossetia. Police said the shot came “from the direction of the Russian checkpoint.

In Moscow, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Russian forces were strictly observing the ceasefire. “We have not been opening fire at anyone,” Andrei Nesterenko told a news briefing.

Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov briefed lawmakers on the Georgia conflict behind closed doors on Wednesday. Afterwards all parties in the lower house of parliament issued a statement accusing Washington of stoking new hostilities.

Slideshow (5 Images)

The statement said a new escalation could be timed to coincide with a visit to Tbilisi by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on September 15. The United States has dismissed Russian allegations it orchestrated last month’s conflict.

“We believe that the tough position of the so-called West in support of Georgia’s territorial integrity in fact continues to provoke the Georgian leadership into further use of force,” said pro-Kremlin lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov.

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