Russian troops begin to leave Georgia

Hundreds of Russian troops retreated from checkpoints across western Georgia on Saturday ahead of a deadline for their withdrawal brokered by the European Union.

Russian troops remain in other parts of undisputed Georgia; the deadline for their withdrawal is not until mid-October.

The partial pullout Saturday was cautiously welcomed by the Georgian government but was overshadowed by news that a Georgian policeman was shot dead from the direction of a Russian position at a post in Ganmukhuri, a village near the separatist enclave of Abkhazia. Another Georgian policeman was shot dead Wednesday, and a Georgian official said the shots came from the direction of a nearby Russian checkpoint.

Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for the Georgian Interior Ministry, welcomed the partial pullout but cautioned that Georgia would not be satisfied until Russia withdrew from all of its territory, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another separatist enclave. Russia recently recognized the two enclaves as independent nations.

“This is a long process, but the partial Russian pullout is a step in the right direction,” he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry emphasized that the withdrawal had been carried out two days before a deadline specified in an agreement brokered by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and endorsed Sept. 8 by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

“The Russian side expects the same strict and conscientious adherence to this agreement by all parties concerned, first of all by the Georgian leadership, and also by the European Union,” the ministry said.

Utiashvili said Georgians continued to be forcibly pushed out of Georgian villages near South Ossetia, which was at the heart of last month's conflict. He said Ossetian militias in the village of Disevi on Saturday had captured six people, poured kerosene over them, and threatened to burn them unless the entire village left. He said several dozen villagers had escaped and were on their way to Gori, a central Georgian town; it is unclear whether those who were threatened fled.

“Ethnic cleansing is continuing to take place south of Tskhinvali in the so-called buffer zone occupied by Russia as well as in South Ossetia, and until Russia has pulled back from South Ossetia and Abkhazia and allowed EU peacekeepers in, we will not be satisfied,” Utiashvili said. Irina Gagloeva, spokeswoman for the Russian-backed government in South Ossetia, denied the incident had taken place. “If this is true, I will pour kerosene on myself,” she said.