Troops Dismantling Positions in Georgia

NADARBAZEVI, Georgia -- Russian troops began dismantling positions Sunday in the so-called security zones inside Georgia they have occupied since August's brief but intense war, a Georgian Interior Ministry official said.

The moves came as Russia faced a Friday deadline for pulling back its troops under terms of a deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union. Hundreds of EU observers began monitoring Russia's compliance with the pact last week.

The moves also followed the explosion of a car bomb outside the Russian military's headquarters in South Ossetia on Friday, which killed seven soldiers.

Georgian and Russian authorities traded accusations over the blast, the deadliest single occurrence reported in South Ossetia since the nations fought a war over the region in August. Both sides claimed that the explosion was aimed at scuttling the fragile Western-backed cease-fire.

South Ossetia's separatist leader, Eduard Kokoity, called the explosion "a targeted terrorist act" and claimed that the Georgian State Security Ministry was behind it. Russia's Defense Ministry called it a "carefully planned terrorist act designed to undermine" the cease-fire.

Russia and Georgia went to war in early August after Georgia launched a massive barrage on the capital of South Ossetia, one of two Georgian separatist regions where Russia has troops stationed as peacekeepers. Russian forces then declared what it called a security zone roughly seven kilometers deep inside Georgia south of South Ossetia and the other separatist region, Abkhazia.

The EU-brokered agreement obliges Russia to pull its troops out of the zones by the end of this week, but Russia plans to keep thousands of troops inside Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On Sunday, troops lowered the flag at a Russian base in Nadarbazevi, about 50 kilometers northwest of Tbilisi. Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili described the position as a communications center and said Russia had promised to leave it fully on Monday.

Utiashvili also said a checkpoint in Ali, in the zone around South Ossetia, was dismantled on Sunday and that Russian forces were leaving another position in Zugdidi, in the zone south of Abkhazia.

A spokesman for the European Union monitoring mission, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Ali checkpoint was being taken down.

"We have to see how it ends, but so far this is a good sign," Utiashvili said.

Georgian and EU officials could not immediately clarify how many Russian positions in total would have to be dismantled to meet the agreement's terms. After the war, Russia said it would set up a total of 36 checkpoints in the security zones -- 18 in each.

n Switzerland will represent Russia's diplomatic interests in Georgia, which were severed after the August war.

The Swiss government said Friday that it approved an official request made by Russia, and details would be discussed with Georgia and Russia soon.

Switzerland, a neutral country, already represents the interests of the United States in Cuba and in Iran and Cuba's interests in the United States.

Georgia's ambassador to Sweden said Friday that his country had asked Sweden to handle its diplomatic relations with Russia. The Swedish government has declined to comment.

n Georgian coast guard personnel began training Saturday aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea, the Georgian border department said.

The training is likely to irritate Russia, which has criticized U.S. aid to Georgia and alleged it could have been a cover for delivering weapons -- a claim the United States has denied.

n The top Ukrainian official overseeing weapons exports on Friday denied that the country had supplied arms to Georgia during its war with Russia, Reuters reported.

Serhiy Bondarchuk, head of state-run Ukrspetsexport, dismissed suggestions by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday that Kiev may have funneled arms to Georgia during the war and that this would constitute a crime.

"The comments made by Mr. Putin are simply untrue," he said.