Medvedev: Russian troops pullback complete by midnight
Speaking at international policy conference in the French Alpine town of Evian on Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Georgian territory would be completed by midnight.
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Russian forces Wednesday abandoned military positions deep inside Georgia in a major pull-back the Kremlin vowed to complete by midnight, two months after the South Ossetia war began.
"I would like to inform you that by midnight today, the evacuation of Russian troops will be complete," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told an international policy conference in the French Alpine town of Evian.
At least three checkpoints near South Ossetia, at Karaleti, Kvenatkotsa and Variani, had been abandoned by mid-afternoon Wednesday, AFP reporters 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 French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as current head of the European Union.
Medvedev was speaking at an international policy conference in Evian which was to be followed by talks with Sarkozy, who told the meeting the Russian president had "kept his word."
The Russian forces had pushed into Georgia to repel a Georgian military effort to regain control of South Ossetia on August 7-8.
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 the pro-Western Georgian 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, while Georgian police were later seen moving into villages north of Karaleti, inside the buffer zone.
"They have begun and will finish in the buffer zones today," Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told AFP, adding that at least two positions in western Georgia near Abkhazia were already dismantled.
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.
Utiashvili said that as a next step, Georgia would push for Russian forces to withdraw from two areas within the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that were under Georgian control before the conflict.
Georgia contends that Russia must withdraw from the Akhalgori region in South Ossetia and the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia under the terms of the August ceasefire, which called for forces on both sides to withdraw to positions held prior to the conflict.
Russian peacekeeping forces were deployed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia before the conflict, but not in the two disputed regions.
On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow will demand a ban on weapons sales to Georgia in talks due to take place in Geneva next week.
"The ideal solution to the problem of ensuring security would be an embargo on arms deliveries to the current Georgian regime, and as an immediate step... there must be an international ban on sales of offensive weaponry to Georgia," Lavrov said in televised remarks.
"In accordance with the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan, it is precisely this issue which is key to the international discussions" scheduled for October 15 in Geneva, Lavrov added.
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