Russian troops pulled back from their positions outside Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia but held their ground in contested areas, setting the stage for more tension between the two countries that waged war in August.
Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said the Russian withdrawal was a positive move, but he added that Georgia wouldn't consider it complete until the troops leave the town of Akhalgori, near South Ossetia, and the Kodori Gorge in another Moscow-backed breakaway province, Abkhazia.
“We think that it's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't mean yet that the withdrawal is fulfilled,” Utiashvili said.
Russia maintains that Akhalgori is part of South Ossetia and considers the Kodori Gorge part of Abkhazia – claims that Georgia rejects.
Russian media carried a statement by Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, who is in charge of Russian troops near South Ossetia, saying the pullout had been fully completed.
Moscow must pull its troops from the buffer zones surrounding the two regions by Friday under cease-fire agreements brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Earlier Wednesday, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said the pullout from areas outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be completed by midnight.
Officials at the European Union monitoring mission patrolling the buffer zone refused to comment on the latest controversy over disputed areas.
The head of the EU monitoring mission, Hansjorg Haber, called the Russian pullout as “a very positive development.”
“We always proceeded from the assumption that the process would be completed by Friday, and this is confirmation of that assumption,” Haber told the AP by telephone, speaking from the buffer zone outside Abkhazia where he watched the Russian pullout.
In Washington, the State Department welcomed Russia's moves but said it was watching to see if it completed the withdrawals by the deadline.
“Russia is, in fact, starting to comply with the Sept. 8 agreement with the EU,” spokesman Sean McCormack said. “It is a positive sign.”
Despite the dispute, the Russian withdrawal paves the way for the return of Georgian authority to a wide swath of territory held by Moscow since the war.
The war erupted when Georgian forces launched an attack targeting Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 in a bid to take control of the region, which broke away in a war during the early 1990s.
Russian troops, tanks and warplanes swiftly repelled the attack and drove deep into Georgia in Moscow's first major military offensive beyond its borders since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.