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Russia Begins Withdrawal From Georgian Base --> Military hardware being withdrawn from Russia's base in Batumi in August 2005 (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) May 3, 2006 -- Reports say Russia today began withdrawing heavy military hardware from its Akhalkalaki base in Georgia.

It is not immediately clear what and how much equipment is being removed.

Russia has pledged to pull out from the two former Soviet bases it retains in Georgia -- Akhalkalaki and Batumi -- by the end of 2008.

All heavy military hardware should be withdrawn from Akhalkalaki by this year.

The pullout began several hours earlier than expected, reportedly to avoid protests by local residents in this largely ethnically Armenian region of Georgia. Even so, some 100 people rallied in the town of Akhalkalaki to voice their opposition to the Russians' departure.

The Akhalkalaki base provides many ethnic Armenians with jobs and the community sees the presence of Russian troops as a guarantee of its security.

(Caucasus press, Ekho Moskvy, RIA Novosti,

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