KARALETI, Georgia – Russian forces pulled back Wednesday from positions outside South Ossetia, bulldozing a camp at a key checkpoint and withdrawing into the separatist region as European Union monitors and relieved Georgian residents looked on.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in France, said Russian forces would leave areas in Georgia around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region, by midnight.
Dozens of armored personnel carriers, military trucks and transport vehicles rolled north through the Russian-established buffer zone and entered South Ossetia. Georgians, frightened by weeks of arson and looting blamed on Russia's South Ossetian allies, lined the road to watch.
"Now I feel safe; I hope that life will improve," said Meri Khokhashvili, standing outside her destroyed home in the village of Kitsnisi. She said she and her husband have lived in the cellar since uniformed soldiers burned down their house in mid-August after the war.
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Russia must withdraw from buffer zones abutting South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Friday under cease-fire agreements brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Western countries have condemned Russia's invasion of Georgia and its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations. Russia plans to keep nearly 4,000 troops in each of the separatist regions — plans the U.S., European Union and NATO say violate a cease-fire commitment to withdraw to pre-conflict positions.
Near the village of Karaleti outside South Ossetia on Wednesday, Russian troops dismantled a camp and a roadblock separating the buffer zone from Georgian-controlled territory, leaving nothing but a broken tractor. Two bulldozers leveled the ground and Russian soldiers swept for mines before leaving.
Two armored personnel carriers headed toward South Ossetia shortly after the chief of Russian peacekeeping troops in the region, Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, said the withdrawal from six Russian posts at the edge of the buffer zone would be finished by day's end.
As they moved north they were joined by dozens of other Russian military vehicles, forming a loose column that crossed into South Ossetia about an hour later. The vehicles were accompanied as far as the border by two blue light-armored vehicles from the EU mission monitoring the pullout.
The governor of the Georgian region where Karaleti is located, Vladimir Vardezelashvili, said Georgian police would move in as the Russians withdraw. A white pickup truck packed with black-uniformed police carrying Kalashnikovs crossed the former checkpoint.
EU monitors have been patrolling the buffer zone since Oct. 1 under the withdrawal agreement, a supplement to the initial cease-fire Sarkozy negotiated on behalf of the EU in August. Russia has made clear the EU monitors are not welcome in the breakaway regions themselves.
The head of the EU monitoring mission, Hansjorg Haber, expressed satisfaction with the Russian moves to withdraw.
"We always proceeded from the assumption that the process would be completed by Friday, and this is confirmation of that assumption," Haber told The Associated Press by telephone from buffer zone outside Abkhazia, where he said there were 12 checkpoints and a base that needed to be evacuated.
The war erupted Aug. 7, when Georgian forces attacked Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, which broke away in a war during the early 1990s. Russian troops, tanks and warplanes repelled the attack and drove deep into Georgia in Russia's first major military offensive beyond its borders since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Russian forces occupied large portions of Georgia for weeks after the war and reinforced positions around the edges of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The war broke out after years of increasing tension between Russia and Georgia, whose pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili has cultivated ties with Washington and pushed to join NATO. Georgia straddles a key westward route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region, and has become a focus of competition between Russia and the West for regional clout.