IGOETI, Georgia – Russian military convoys rolled out of three key positions in Georgia and headed toward Moscow-backed separatist regions Friday in a significant withdrawal two weeks after thousands of troops roared into the former Soviet republic.
In Moscow, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said the pullback into separatist South Ossetia was finished late Friday -- but the United States was less than impressed.
"(Russians) have without a doubt failed to live up to their obligations," U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington. "Establishing checkpoints, buffer zones are definitely not part of the agreement."
Georgia's state minister on reintegration, Temur Yakobashvili, told The Associated Press the formation of a buffer zone outside South Ossetia "is absolutely illegal."
In western Georgia, a column of 83 tanks, APCs and trucks hauling artillery moved away from the Senaki military base north toward the border of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region on Friday afternoon. Georgian police said the vehicles came from the base, which has been under Russian control for more than a week.
In central Georgia, at least 40 Russian military vehicles left the strategic crossroads city of Gori, heading north toward South Ossetia and Russia. Gori straddles the country's main east-west highway south of South Ossetia, the separatist region at the heart of the fighting. After Russian forces left Gori, cranes began dismantling a Russian checkpoint.
An Associated Press reporter in Igoeti, meanwhile, confirmed that Russian forces had pulled up from their former checkpoints and roadside positions around the village. Igoeti, on the road between Gori and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, had been the Russians' closest position to the Georgian capital.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had promised to have his troops out of Georgia by Friday -- but a top Russian general later amended that prediction, saying it could take at least 10 days before the bulk of Russian troops and hardware could be withdrawn.
The short but intense war near Russia's southern border has deeply strained relations between Moscow and the West. Russia has frozen its military cooperation with NATO, Moscow's Cold War foe, underscoring a growing division in Europe. Georgia's pro-Western leaders are pushing to join NATO, angering a resurgent Russia.
The major fighting began Aug. 7 when Georgia launched a barrage targeting South Ossetia, which claims independence and has Russian support. Russian forces quickly drove the Georgians back and drove deep into Georgia.
Under an EU-brokered cease-fire deal, Russian forces are to pull back to positions they held before the fighting erupted, and Western leaders have called for a complete withdrawal from Georgia. But Russia says it will keep troops it calls peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as in buffer zones stretching into Georgia proper.
There were still questions about the extent of the Russian pullout on Friday.
Outside Poti, Russian troops were seen digging large trenches Friday morning near a bridge that provides the only access to the city. Five trucks, several armored personnel carriers and a helicopter were parked nearby. Another Russian position was seen in a wooded area outside the city.
The mayor of Poti, Vano Saginadze, said late Friday that two Russian roadblocks remained in or near the city. Poti is far from any zone that Russian troops could be allowed to be in under the cease-fire.
Regardless of the timing and extent of the withdrawal, Russia, Georgia and the West are bound to become embroiled in disputes over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from central government control in early 1990s wars after the Soviet breakup.
The Russian parliament was expected to discuss recognizing the independence of the separatist regions Monday.
In South Ossetia, whose capital Tskhinvali suffered the most in fighting, Russian troops were clearly establishing a long-term presence, erecting 18 peacekeeping posts in a so-called "security zone" around the border with Georgia.
Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia's general staff, said Friday the move was aimed at preventing looters and Georgian arms smugglers. He said Russia still expected Georgia to try future military offensives in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where another further 18 peacekeeping posts are to be set up.
The heavily armed soldiers that Russia calls peacekeepers have been working closely with regular Russian troops and their separatist allies against Georgian forces. A total of 2,142 Russian peacekeepers are to be deployed on the Abkhazia de facto border, while 452 will man the South Ossetia de facto border, Nogovitsyn said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity signaled that ethnic Georgians will not be allowed return to the region, charging that ethnic Ossetians were not allowed to return to Georgia after a previous conflict.
Asked whether the ethnic Georgians will be able to come back and where they will settle, Kokoity said, "Exactly, the main question is where, there is nothing left anymore."
That's because deserted ethnic Georgian villages around Tskhinvali have been burned and looted -- many days after fighting ended.
In the village of Achabeti, an AP reporter saw Ossetians remove chairs, window frames and whatever else they could carry from abandoned Georgian houses. Many houses stood smoldering in the August heat and another building went up in flames. An excavator was dismantling a destroyed house.
Russian emergency officials arrived in Achabeti to evacuate the elderly who were too frail to flee in an operation they have been conducting in Georgian villages for the past several days. The Georgians were taken to Gori, where officials would attempt to get them in touch with their relatives.
Many of the elderly were happy to be evacuated, having been left behind with no food or care. But some did think it was an ingenious effort by Ossetians and the Russians to deport all Georgians from Ossetia.
"They are erasing this village from the face of earth so that Ossetians would come here," Aliosh Maisuradze, 83, said with tears in his eyes.
The U.N. estimates 158,000 people have fled their homes due to the fighting. The United States has carried out 20 aid flights to Georgia since Aug. 19, and three U.S. warships were heading toward Turkey carrying blankets, hygiene kits and baby food to Georgia.