Russian forces abandoned buffer zone posts around Georgia's rebel regions Wednesday in a major pull-back expected to be completed during the day, two months after the war with Tbilisi.
"Today we started the practical realisation of the agreement between the French and Russian presidents... concerning the dismantling of posts located in the security zone," Marat Kulakhmetov, the head of Russian peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia, told journalists at the Karaleti checkpoint.
"All the men are ready and the material is loaded. The departure will be done over a few hours today. All the posts will leave during the day."
At least two checkpoints near South Ossetia, at Karaleti and Variani, had been abandoned by midday Wednesday, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
A column of at least 10 military trucks, five tanks and one armoured personnel carrier was seen departing the Karaleti checkpoint in the direction of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, followed by European Union monitors.
Russian forces are due to withdraw from buffer zones around South Ossetia and Georgia's second rebel region of Abkhazia by Friday under a peace deal brokered by President Nicolas Sarkozy, as current head of the European Union.
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.
In Karaleti on Wednesday, a Russian commander and representative of the Gori regional administration were seen signing an official document handing the area over to Georgian control.
At Variani, no Russian soldiers could be seen at their previous positions and a Georgian flag had been raised.
Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said he expected Russian forces to withdraw from all positions in the buffer zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia by the end of the day.
"They have begun and will finish in the buffer zones today," Utiashvili told AFP.
At least two positions in western Georgia near Abkhazia were already dismantled early Wednesday, he said.
A first post, located on the edge of the buffer zone around South Ossetia, was dismantled on Sunday and work also began to dismantle other positions.
At least 200 EU observers deployed in the buffer zones last week as part of the ceasefire deal.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is due to hold talks with Sarkozy in France on Wednesday.