East-West Artery Reopens in Georgia

APA local man eating in a restaurant on the outskirts of the South Ossetian village of Dzhava as Russian armored vehicles move Saturday toward North Ossetia.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Traffic gradually began to trickle along Georgia's main east-west highway over the weekend, after the departure of Russian troops who had been barring traffic on the road and, effectively, cutting the country in half.

A reporter traveling by car from the Black Sea port of Poti to Tbilisi saw that the last remaining checkpoints east and west of Gori on the highway, a lifeline for the South Caucasus, had been opened, after barring traffic along the road for almost a fortnight.

The crisis in Georgia continued to simmer over the weekend despite a significant reduction in the number of Russian troops and Moscow's announcement that it had fulfilled its obligations as spelled out in a cease-fire agreement.

Tbilisi and the West sharply criticized a Kremlin announcement that 2,500 soldiers would continue to man two buffer zones outside South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's borders with Georgia proper and demanded a complete withdrawal.

They accused Moscow of unilaterally taking control of a giant swath of western Georgia, far from the conflict zone in South Ossetia, and having prolonged its stranglehold on the country's economy with its continued control of the east-west highway.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday evening that Russian troops had completed their pullback and that Moscow had fulfilled its obligations under the cease-fire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a statement on the president's official web site said.

Russian troops pulled back from the central city of Gori, the Senaki military base in western Georgia and the eastern checkpoint of Igoeti, but retained checkpoints near both Gori and Senaki.

At a checkpoint near Agara, about 30 kilometers east of Khashuri along the east-west highway, a cheerful Russian lieutenant let through two cars with journalists but not without an act of dubious hospitality.

An old villager in an ancient Moskvich car loaded with peaches was headed in the opposite direction. The officer, who refused to give his name, approached the driver shouting, "Father, give the journalists some of your fruit."

Before the helpless man could react, the checkpoint commander began removing peaches through the car's open windows and handing them to the bewildered journalists and their drivers.

Many of the fields along the road from Khashuri to Gori were still burning or scorched. The Georgian government has accused Russian forces of setting them on fire, but this could not be confirmed independently.

Russian peacekeepers had constructed a large outpost just north of the key Black Sea port of Poti, between two vital access bridges to the city.

By Friday, it had been bolstered by armored vehicles dug into the field between the bridges. Above them flew a large Russian flag and a small CIS variant. Peacekeepers also maintained a second post in woods north of the city. "Poti is not in the security zone," Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, said Saturday, RIA-Novosti reported. "But that doesn't mean that we will sit behind the fence and watch as they drive around in Hummers."

He was referring to the confiscation by Russian troops of five U.S. military Humvees last week as they waited in Poti to be shipped home.

The U.S. destroyer McFaul, carrying humanitarian aid, had to be redirected to Batumi, which has no deep-sea port, The Associated Press reported. The navy had been forced to ferry the supplies to shore in smaller craft.

Nogovitsyn said at a Friday briefing that 2,142 Russian soldiers would man checkpoints in western Georgia and another 452 in region around South Ossetia. He also said the number of troops might grow.

"We reserve the right to increase our forces if necessary," he said.

According to a map he showed reporters, the security zone around South Ossetia would twice cross the highway past the central town of Gori, thus giving Russian forces control over the vital transport route, which serves as a lifeline to Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Nogovitsyn said some checkpoints would be placed on major roads "so that we can control all traffic flows [to the region]."

The Defense Ministry said the measures were legal and that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has labeled the zones as "unacceptable," had no right to complain.

"We will not ask Mr. Saakashvili about the buffer zones," Nogovitsyn said. "With this aggression, this president unilaterally breached the existing agreements," he said, referring to Georgia's attack on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Aug. 7.

"He now has no moral or legal right to dictate conditions," he added.

Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili said in an interview in his Tbilisi office Sunday that the maps the General Staff displayed at the Saturday news conference did not jive with existing agreements.

"That map is invalid because, after Russia invaded Georgia, all previous agreements are in the trash bin," Iakobashvili said. He said an explanatory letter provided by Sarkozy had stipulated that the Russians would have the right to patrol a 15-kilometer radius around Tskhinvali.

He admitted that Georgia was in no position to pressure Moscow on the issue but was optimistic that the West would step in to do this.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe on Saturday said, "Putting up permanent facilities and checkpoints are inconsistent with the agreement," Reuters reported.

U.S. President George W. Bush discussed the withdrawal with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the cease-fire, and they "agreed that Russia is not in compliance and that Russia needs to come into compliance now," Johndroe said, The Associated Press reported.

German government spokesman Thomas Steg said Germany now expects Russia to complete its pullout immediately and withdraw to the lines held before hostilities started earlier this month.

Sarkozy's office said he and Medvedev agreed Saturday on the urgent need to create an international mechanism under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to replace Russian patrols in the buffer zone south of South Ossetia, Reuters reported.

A statement on Medvedev's web site, however, said replacing Russian peacekeepers had not been discussed.

An OSCE monitor, Terhi Hakala, said Sunday that around 15 OSCE monitors are waiting to go into South Ossetia via Georgia but that they are not able to enter until they receive security guarantees from the Russian peacekeepers.

The monitors expect to enter in 10 to 14 days, she said.

Natalya Krainova and Anna Malpas contributed to this report from Moscow.