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Russian Forces Pull Back From Western Georgia Positions

Russian forces pulled out of the Black Sea port of Poti on Saturday and appeared to be preparing to withdraw from other positions in western Georgia weeks after a war in the ex-Soviet republic, eyewitnesses and officials said.

An Associated Press television crew saw Russian soldiers packing military trucks with blankets and other supplies at a post by the Black Sea shore near the breakaway Abkhazia region before dawn. They took down the Russian tricolor flag.

Four trucks stood packed and ready to leave the post in the village of Pirveli Maisi, along with an armored personnel carrier. A Russian column about the same size rolled past on a road leading to Abkhazia.

Russian forces left the two posts they had maintained on the outskirts of Poti, one by a bridge on a main road leading into the city and one a few miles from Georgia's main port and its devastated naval base, Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said.

"Russian forces have withdrawn completely from Poti," he said.

Russia has maintained two dozen posts in Georgia beyond separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia following last month's war, a humiliating presence that Georgia, the U.S. and European Union say violates an EU-brokered cease-fire agreement.

The presence in Poti has 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.

Under a new agreement forged last week, the Kremlin has promised to withdraw from Poti and some of its other posts in western Georgia by Monday and from all its positions on Georgian territory outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia within 10 days of the deployment of EU observers.

The observers are to be in place in zones surrounding the separatist regions by Oct. 1.

But Western governments say Moscow's plans to maintain 7,600 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia would violate a provision in the cease-fire calling for the return of Russian troops to positions they held before the conflict erupted Aug. 7.

Russian tanks, troops and warplanes repelled a Georgian offensive targeting South Ossetia and drove deep into Georgia, where they occupied large swaths of territory before an initial withdrawal in late August.

The five-day war killed hundreds of people and drove nearly 200,000 from their homes.

Russia's military campaign and its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations has plunged its relations with the United States and Europe into their worst crisis since the Cold War.