Russians Pulling Back, Digging In

APGeorgian soldiers sitting blindfolded atop an armored vehicle near Poti, Georgia, where reports said they were detained by Russian forces on Tuesday.
Staff Writers

MIZUR, North Ossetia — A small number of Russian troops and armored and supply vehicles began moving north from the Georgian border on Tuesday and toward Vladikavkaz as part of the beginning stages of a phased withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory.

President Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement on the Kremlin web site that Russian troops would withdraw to their pre-conflict positions by Thursday, but troop activities in the area suggested that they might be digging in for an even longer stay.

A large body of soldiers in more than 30 huge army trucks moved north from the border toward the North Ossetian capital as one part of the movement Tuesday.

"What we are seeing today is small groups of military vehicles moving from Gori toward Vladikavkaz," said a Kremlin official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "These small groups will then link up, but you won't be seeing any large columns of troops."

The initial stages of movement would be limited to what the official described as "second echelon forces," including one armored infantry division, medical supplies and ammunition.

Dozens of troop transports could be seen streaming northward from the direction of the Roksky Tunnel and the border between Russia and South Ossetia as early as 4 p.m. The columns moved at high speeds in the blazingly hot and humid conditions along the winding mountain passes of the remote North Caucasus republic.

Large Emergency Situations Ministry trucks were also moving northward, driving by in tight columns, preceded and followed by military police escorts.

While confirming that the troops had begun to leave, the Kremlin official took pains to specify that the movement represented a "pullback" and not a "withdrawal," suggesting that the option for the soldiers' return was being left open.

The Foreign Ministry arranged for reporters to watch a column of six armored personnel carriers, two tanks and two other vehicles drive out of Gori, Reuters reported. At the same time, Russian troops nearby could be seen digging trenches around artillery emplacements.

A Moscow Times reporter saw troops digging new positions in Tskhinvali, confirming comments from the Russian General Staff that it was beefing up its presence in South Ossetian capital.

"At present, the preparation of foundations for peacekeeping bases is being carried out in accordance with the Moscow agreements, as an added security measure in the zone of peacekeeping operations," General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the General Staff, told a news conference Tuesday in Moscow, Interfax reported. "Every day we are identifying, uncovering and disarming irregular groups of armed soldiers that are not being controlled or subdued by the Georgian side."

President Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement in Moscow last week on a cease-fire and withdrawal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy's office said Sunday that Medvedev had told him the Russian forces would begin to withdraw at about noon on Monday, but Western powers said they saw little evidence of it happening on Tuesday.

"I hope that I am wrong and that right now the beginnings of these movements which have been signaled — but they were also signaled yesterday, you know — will result in a real departure, but I'm not sure," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told a news conference, Reuters reported.

Nogovitsyn, meanwhile, said Georgia had to send 2,000 soldiers back to Iraq, after recalling them last week.

According to the agreement on troop dispositions, both sides were to pull their forces back to the positions occupied before the fighting broke out.

Those Russian forces not pulling back or digging continued to flex their military muscles Tuesday.

In Poti, home to Georgia's main oil port, Russian forces blocked off the city's military and commercial ports before towing a missile boat, one of the most sophisticated vessels in the Georgian navy, out of sight of observers, The Associated Press reported. A loud explosion followed shortly afterward.

Russian trucks and armored personnel carriers then left the port with about 20 men blindfolded, handcuffed and riding on top. A port spokesman said the men were Georgian soldiers, the news agency reported.

The Russian soldiers also took with them four U.S. Humvees that had been used in earlier U.S.-Georgian exercises and were awaiting shipment back to the United States.

"If the Russians have it, it needs to be returned immediately," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said about the missing Humvees, Reuters reported.

Russian soldiers also kept the main highway running through Gori and connecting eastern and western Georgia blocked Tuesday, meaning that the country remained divided into two halves, forcing motorists to take an eight hour detour in place of what would normally be a highway trip of 113 kilometers.

A reporter traveling along the dirt-road detour at around noon saw at least two military helicopters flying low over the mountainous plain east of the town of Tsalka, about 70 kilometers southwest of Tbilisi. Another helicopter appeared over the trail above Bakuriani later in the afternoon.

Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze told reporters late Monday night in Tbilisi that Russian military helicopters were flying over Georgian territory in violation of the cease-fire.

The town of Hashuri, at the intersection of the east-west highway and the road south to Borjomi, was serving as a base for a large number of Russian soldiers, who appeared to be making no arrangements to move late Tuesday night. Checkpoints at the junction were manned by Russian troops, bolstered by armored personnel carriers.

Local taxi driver Nujzar Abeliani said that when the soldiers arrived on Friday, they disarmed the local police. He also said the military base, now guarded by soldiers in flip-flops, had been plundered. One of the soldiers said a Russian special transport unit had come and taken everything away.

Matt Siegel reported from Mizur; Nikolaus von Twickel reported from Hashuri, Georgia; John Wendle contributed to this report from Tskhinvali.