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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgian Troops Withdraw

APGeorgian peacekeepers keeping watch of the hilltops near a Georgian village Friday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian troops withdrew Friday from strategic positions gained in a week of fighting near South Ossetia's capital and Russian peacekeepers moved in, bringing a tense calm to the separatist region over the weekend.

After nearly a week of nightly mortar and gunfire that threatened to spiral into all-out war, no shooting was reported for the past three days in South Ossetia.

On Thursday, Georgian government forces battled separatists for strategic areas near the South Ossetian regional capital, Tskhinvali, in some of the worst fighting since the region broke away from Georgia in a war that killed hundreds a decade ago.

Georgian officials said government forces captured hills overlooking a road linking ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia with the rest of Georgia, and killed eight Russian Cossack mercenaries.

South Ossetian officials denied the hills were captured and accused Georgia of launching a major assault on Tskhinvali. They said three civilians died in Georgian shelling of Tskhinvali, while Georgian officials said three Georgian troops were killed.

Following the fighting, Georgia began withdrawing troops from the contested region, and Russian peacekeepers -- part of a force that includes Georgian and South Ossetian troops -- deployed on hilltops near Tskhinvali and set up checkpoints near several villages, officials said. Givi Iukuridze, the head of the Georgian General Staff, said there were "hopes for peace," but he cautioned that the joint commission responsible for managing the conflict had not yet worked out a "reliable mechanism."

The U.S. State Department welcomed Georgian withdrawal in a statement issued Friday, saying, "Georgia's ability to carry out its ambitious reform agenda depends on having peace and stability."

It called for establishing "an effective negotiating mechanism in pursuit of a political settlement that preserves South Ossetian autonomy within Georgia."

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry also welcomed the withdrawal as a "right and long-overdue move."

At the same time, President Vladimir Putin on Friday said Georgia itself had triggered the original conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia by depriving the regions of their Soviet-era autonomy in the early 1990s.

 Angry Georgian villagers on Friday hurled stones at police during a protest against the construction of the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline near the Borzhomi Gorge, officials said.

About 60 residents of the village of Tabatskuri threw stones at police who urged them to end their protest, slightly injuring four officers before dispersing.