European Union monitors in Georgia witnessed the dismantling of a Russian checkpoint near the South Ossetia border in the "first open sign" of a pullback ahead of the Oct. 10 deadline agreed upon under a French-brokered peace plan.
Russian forces in Georgia removed a first checkpoint Sunday and began dismantling others as part of an expected troop pull-back after August's war over the South Ossetia rebel region.
The Russians made the move in a buffer zone around South Ossetia and in western Georgia, after warnings by Georgian and US officials that Moscow might try to delay the pull-back following a Friday bomb attack.
"Our observers went to the checkpoint in Ali, northwest of Gori, and saw that it has been dismantled," a spokesman of the European Union mission monitoring the withdrawal told AFP.
"This is the first dismantled checkpoint," he said.
Russian forces are due to withdraw from buffer zones around South Ossetia and the second rebel region of Abkhazia by October 10 under an EU-brokered peace deal.
The Russian forces had pushed into Georgia in early August to repel a Georgian military effort to regain control of South Ossetia.
Moscow said it was protecting Russian citizens there from Georgian aggression, but Tbilisi accused it of having provoked the conflict in order to cement control over the region and destabilise its pro-Western government.
The Ali checkpoint, on a key passageway to South Ossetia, was on the southwest edge of the buffer zone, about 15 kilometres (10 miles) from the rebel region's de facto border.
On Sunday, all that was left at the abandoned site were a series of holes in the ground for tents and trenches, and garbage including empty beer cans and cigarette boxes.
Georgia voiced optimism that the removal of the checkpoint, where 20-30 Russian soldiers had been posted with several tanks, was the start of a fuller pull-back.
"It looks like the start of the withdrawal," said Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili. "Georgian police are moving into the area immediately."
The secretary of Georgia's security council, Alexander Lomaia, said Russian forces were also seen preparing to leave another checkpoint near South Ossetia at Perevi.
"In Perevi, the Russians are making some preparations, possibly for a withdrawal," Lomaia told AFP.
Russian soldiers were seen taking down barbed wire fences and removing equipment from at least three checkpoints near the city of Zugdidi.
About 15 military trucks carrying equipment and four armoured personnel carriers were later seen crossing into Abkhazia at the Enguri Bridge, the main border post.
Separately, a Georgian journalist told AFP that a Russian soldier struck him on the head with a rifle while filming the dismantlement of the Urta buffer zone post, near Abkhazia.
And EU and Georgian sources said later that two more Russian checkpoints at Kvenatkotsa and Narvazeri, near Gori, would be taken down early on Monday.
At least 200 European Union observers deployed last Wednesday to monitor the ceasefire and the Russian pull-back.
At the time of the EU deployment, an estimated 800 Russian troops remained in Georgia outside its two separatist territories, with 10 encampments in the buffer zone around Abkhazia and eight around South Ossetia.
In a sign of continued tensions, Russia on Saturday accused Georgian security forces of carrying out a bomb attack in South Ossetia that killed eight Russian troops. Georgia denied any involvement, saying the attack was a provocation aimed at stalling the withdrawal.
Russia recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent on August 26 and intends to keep troops there.
Date created : 2008-10-05