Russia quickens departure from Georgia

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The Independent Online

Russian forces today accelerated a promised pullout from Georgian territory, but it was unclear how long it would take and what presence they would retain in a so-called “buffer zone” around the conflict areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian armoured vehicles completed their departure from the key city of Gori, which was deserted by the Georgian Army and most of its population in the early days of the conflict and has been under Russian control since. Checkpoints were also scaled down on Georgia's main east-west highway, on which Gori lies, and where Georgian drivers over the past week have been subjected to document checks and car searches by heavily armed Russian soldiers at multiple points, and at times simply denied passage.

After Georgia's assault on its separatist enclave of South Ossetia two weeks ago, Russian jets launched bombing raids across Georgia and its land forces poured into the country, destroying the pro-Western country's US-funded military infrastructure as it went.

As a convoy of 80 Russian tanks headed north towards South Ossetia today, the US government aid agency announced in Tbilisi that the Georgian government is seeking between $1 billion to $2 billion in aid to repair and develop the infrastructure destroyed by the Russian army. Henrietta Fore, the agency's administrator said the project was called the Phoenix Fund, and was earmarked for reconstruction. “It's not just because of hostilities. It's for development," she added.

Russia today said that 18 new checkpoints would built in a “buffer zone” around the border of South Ossetia, and a further 18 around Georgia's other breakaway region of Abkhazia. Russia's parliament will debate recognising the independence of the two regions on Monday.

A written amendment to the French-brokered ceasefire agreement states that Russia will not be allowed to patrol major urban areas. But under agreements signed years ago, Russian “peacekeepers” can legitimately patrol an area of a few kilometres outside the border of South Ossetia, which covers many Georgian villages and extends to the country's east-west artery at two points.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said that Georgia will “never allow” Russians to patrol inside Georgia proper: “There will be no buffer zones. We will never live with any buffer zones,” he said earlier this week.

But as this conflict has shown repeatedly, the Russians do not feel the need to consult the opinion of the international community, much less that of the Georgian president, before making decisions.

“We will not ask or consult with Mr Saakashvili about the buffer zone,” said the deputy chief of the Russian general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, in Moscow.

He also said that checkpoints along the road between Gori and Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, were there to stay. Many of these fall well outside any possible buffer zone and are likely to antagonise the Georgians greatly. On Thursday evening, dozens of Russian soldiers could be seen digging what looked like permanent installations in a field by the roadside just outside Karaleti, the closest village to Gori. Many houses in the village itself have been looted and burned by South Ossetian and other irregular militias who poured down the road from South Ossetia after the Georgian Army had fled.

Russia promised that the withdrawal to the buffer zone would be complete last night. But reports from western Georgia yesterday gave a mixed picture of the supposed Russian pullout. Moscow's forces were said to have left the town of Zugdidi, near Abkhazia, but were still visible in the port city of Poti and were said to be digging trenches around checkpoints.

The West has responded angrily to Russia's military assault but has failed to coordinate any concrete steps to counter Moscow's actions inside Georgia.

The UN Security Council remains deadlocked as Russia remains sceptical of a French draft resolution demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops to their pre-conflict positions. An alternate Russian-drafted resolution which simply reiterates the terms of a ceasefire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy was treated with scepticism by other Security Council members, which want to reaffirm Georgia's territorial integrity.