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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Sign of Promised Troop Pullback

APRussian soldiers sitting on top of an armored vehicle in the outskirts of Gori on Monday. The Georgian town lies on the vital Tbilisi-Sukhumi highway.
DIGOETI, Georgia — Russian forces occupying central Georgia made no signs of leaving Monday, despite claims by the Defense Ministry that a pullout was beginning.

"Russia has finished the operation on halting Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia. The pullout of peacekeeping forces started today," Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the armed forces' General Staff, told reporters in Moscow on Monday.

Russian troops moved into Georgia after Tbilisi sent its military to reclaim the pro-Russia separatist province of South Ossetia by force on Aug. 7.

Russian forces seized several key towns, a major power plant and military bases in Georgia and continued holding them despite mounting Western criticism that they had used excessive force against the U.S.-backed Georgia.

During much of the day Monday, armored personnel carriers and military trucks were moving freely between Gori and Digoeti on the Tbilisi-Sukhumi Highway, while further toward the capital, Tbilisi, a massive Georgian police force was waiting to enter the Russian-controlled zone.

There were as many as five Russian checkpoints along the road to Gori, the first in the village of Digoeti, about 40 kilometers west of Tbilisi. Each checkpoint was fortified by entrenched and camouflaged armored personnel carriers and, in one instance, a tank.

General Vyacheslav Borisov, the local Russian commander, was seen outside Digoeti negotiating with a Georgian priest. Approached by reporters, the general said, "Go away or I will swear at you," before a Georgian security guard whisked the journalists away.

In the late afternoon, a Moscow Times reporter saw a column of four armored vehicles with Russian infantrymen on top force their way through a Georgian police blockade in Digoeti.

The police had blocked an unpaved road that leads north from the village to the Akhalgori region, which is formally part of South Ossetia but has not been touched by the conflict and has a mixed Georgian-Ossetian population. The government in Tbilisi said the region was seized over the weekend by a mixed Russian and Ossetian force.

As armored vehicles arrived Monday, a colonel got out of a UAZ jeep and told local police chief Vladimir Dzhugeli that he had five minutes to clear the road, which was blocked by three vehicles, two Toyota pickup trucks and a Skoda.

When Dzhugeli replied that he had orders to protect the villages, he and the Russian officer, who would not give his name, haggled while ringing up each other's superiors. After the colonel had briefly talked over Dzhugeli's cell phone, he ordered his vehicles to proceed, pushing aside a pickup and badly damaging the Skoda.

When the column had gone up the road, another one with five vehicles took the same road. Many of the men sitting on the vehicles were wearing white armbands, identifying them as irregulars.

Further east, on the outskirts of Gori, soldiers manning the biggest Russian checkpoint in the region, refused to let any journalists pass into the town, which has over the course of last week been deserted by most of its inhabitants.

During the afternoon, several explosions could be heard from the north toward South Ossetia.

Locals said the situation in Gori was quiet. "The houses are in order and everything is fine," said Suliko Sisnashvili, who was walking to his nearby village of Sveneti. The 67-year-old said he had a good relationship with the Russian troops in the town. "I drink with them and I walk with them — because my wife is Russian," he said.

Some of the soldiers at the checkpoint seemed to be eager to go home. "Sure we want to go. Who needs this war? Nobody," said one who would only give his first name, Nikolai.

Asked whether Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili should leave office, the soldier said this was not up to him. "The people need to decide this, not us. Who needs this war?" he said, leaning against his vehicle.

Russian officials have repeatedly called for Saakashvili's removal, and the Georgian government is accusing Moscow of trying to force a regime change.

Among the few cars that did pass through the Gori checkpoint Monday were two aid convoys, one from the Red Cross and another from the World Food Programme.

A busload of people traveling from Turkey to the Azeri capital, Baku, was also let through. Ziamush Zeinalov, from Gandja, said Gori was teeming with Russian troops and armored vehicles. "They are everywhere," he said.

Nogovitsyn of the General Staff said Monday that the details of the withdrawal from Georgia were discussed earlier in the day between Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle.

"We agreed on further cooperation, on the position of both sides, from the troops' pullout to humanitarian effort," Nogovitsyn said.

He added that the troops would be withdrawn from the territory of Georgia proper to the South Ossetia.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov said Monday that the fifth point of a six-point truce signed by Moscow and Tbilisi says Russia has to undertake additional measures to ensure safety of its peacekeepers and that this would require some time.

"Our military cannot leave Georgia right away," he said in a telephone interview.

Meanwhile, a U.S. official said Monday that the Russian military deployed several SS-21 missile launchers Friday to positions north of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, The Associated Press reported from Washington. That would put the missiles within range of Tbilisi, the official said.

Nogovitsyn denied that SS-21s have been used by the Russian military during the conflict.

He also accused the Georgians of breaking an agreement to swap 12 Russian military prisoners for 15 Georgian servicemen.

He said the Georgian officials had come up additional demands at the last minute and torpedoed the exchange.

Georgian Foreign Ministry said Tbilisi was ready to swap but that the list of prisoners provided by the Russian officials was incomplete and included the names of people who had been released already.

Russian troops continued blocking the major Georgia's east-west road near the town of Kaspi, roamed the town of Borjomi and continued demolishing the Senaki military base on Monday, Georgian Foreign Ministry said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was to decide Monday whether to increase its mission in Georgia with another 100 unarmed military monitors, AP reported.

Nikolaus von Twickel reported from Digoeti; Nabi Abdullaev reported from Moscow.