Troops Withdraw From Poti Region

APRussian soldiers pulling out of their positions near Abkhazia on Saturday.
POTI, Georgia -- Russian troops withdrew from the region around Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti on Saturday, within a Sept. 15 deadline set for the first phase of a pullback brokered by France.

Georgia welcomed the move and said it hoped Russian forces would keep to an Oct. 10 deadline to withdraw completely from Georgian territory outside the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was confident this deadline would be met. A 200-member team of EU monitors will also be deployed in Georgia before the beginning of October, Solana said.

A reporter saw troops in armored personnel carriers and trucks pull out from positions on the outskirts of Poti after dawn. Russian forces also left another three positions on the way to nearby Senaki.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said later Saturday that the withdrawal had been completed two days before the deadline set in the agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and endorsed on Sept. 8 by President Dmitry Medvedev.

"Russia expects the same strict and good-willed adherence to this agreement from all parties concerned, above all from the Georgian leaders, and likewise from the European Union," the ministry said in a statement on its web site.

Russia sent forces deep into Georgia last month after repelling an attempt by Tbilisi to retake South Ossetia.

Last Monday, Moscow agreed to withdraw its troops from "security zones" inside Georgia around South Ossetia and Abkhazia within a month.

The deal, brokered by Sarkozy on behalf of the EU, included a commitment to pull out by Sept. 15 from "monitoring posts" in the Poti region, where an oil and dry grain shipment port is considered vital to the Georgian economy.

"This is an example of Europe being united and the aggressor having to retreat," Georgian National Security Council Secretary Kakha Lomaia said.

But Lomaia said that even with the departure of those 250 soldiers and 20 armored vehicles, some 1,200 Russian soldiers still remained at 19 positions inside Georgia.

Although major fighting has now stopped, sporadic violence persists in and around both breakaway regions. Two Georgian policemen have been gunned down in separate incidents last week. The latest death took place Saturday after shots were fired at a Georgian police checkpoint from a village in Abkhazia.

Georgia's government, meanwhile, pressed its claim that ethnic Georgians are being persecuted in South Ossetia. Officials said Ossetian paramilitary fighters doused several ethnic Georgians with kerosene and ordered them to leave their villages late Friday.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said Ossetian paramilitaries first set fire to houses owned by ethnic Georgian in two South Ossetian villages, Koshka and Disevi.

South Ossetian government spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva called Georgia's latest allegation "a complete lie."

n Former parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, a popular former ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili, on Friday questioned the wisdom of the war with Russia, calling for a national "conversation" about whether the conflict could have been avoided.

n A group of European lawmakers called on Friday for Russia to be suspended from the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly over the Georgia conflict. (Reuters, AP)