Russia's declaration that it has complied with the withdrawal terms of its cease-fire with Georgia has been dismissed by a senior Georgian official who says continued Russian checkpoints are in violation of the deal.
"Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has reported to the Commander-in-Chief, [President] Dmitry Medvedev, on the completion of the order to pull out from Georgian territory Russian troops sent to reinforce peacekeepers," a statement issued by the Defense Ministry said, according to Reuters.
The Russian statement added that "peacekeeping checkpoints in the security zone have started carrying out the tasks set before them."
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili acknowledged that Russian troops had pulled back at least partially, but said more needed to be done.
"The fact of the pullout of occupying forces from the main towns, under enormous pressure from the international community, is a good start and a step in the right direction," Saakashvili told a meeting of the National Security Council that was broadcast live on Georgian television. "But we should not be under any illusions, as our road to freedom will be long."'Security Zones'
There are still unanswered questions over Moscow's assertions of rights to keep forces in swaths of Georgia outside the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"The Russians want to have eight peacekeeping checkpoints outside South Ossetia, but that is not agreed with us or with the international mediators," Alexandre Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, said. "It is not Russia's right to decide unilaterally how many checkpoints will be here. It will be the subject of further negotiations."
Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Russian forces continued to hold positions in the west of the country. He said troops remained in the town of Senaki and the port of Poti.
U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who mediated the cease-fire deal, reportedly agreed in a telephone call after the Russian statement that its forces were "not in compliance."
"It is my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory and they need to do that," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe was quoted by Reuters as saying in Texas, where Bush was on a working vacation.
A NATO representative to the region, Robert Simmons, initially responded by saying the alliance had not had time to determine whether Russian forces were in compliance. But he noted that the cease-fire stipulates that "all the forces but those that were involved in the region before August 7, and secondly that their ability to patrol is limited to a small area."
Georgian policeman waves a national flag on the Gori-Tbilisi road near the village of Khurvaleti on August 22
Russian troops were seen throughout much of the day leaving strategic sites near Georgia's de facto borders with its breakaway regions.
RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Goga Aptsiauri
reports that all Russian checkpoints are gone from Gori, a town strategically located near a major east-west highway and near the de facto border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Aptsiauri says Russians began to withdraw from checkpoints in the nearby mountains in the early afternoon.
Aptsiauri says Georgian police and Interior Ministry troops have also returned to the town.
Lomaia confirmed that Russian troops had left Gori and were also pulling out of surrounding areas. Twenty Russian military vehicles carrying hundreds of troops were observed heading north from Gori toward South Ossetia.
Withdrawals were also reported from Igoeti, a town just 30 kilometers from the Georgian capital, where a Russian checkpoint was set up.'No Need For War'
A Russian officer and two Russian soldiers spoke to Reuters en route from Gori to Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.
"Yes, it's over, we're leaving, with all the equipment," the officer said. "In short, [we're going] home. Peace to all countries. What else can I say? There's no need for war. There should be friendship."
"We're from Chechnya. We're stationed in Chechnya," said one soldier. "We're going to Tskhinvali now."
"We go where we're ordered to go," the other soldier said. "We're just doing our bit, we're following orders. We're leaving here now."
Koba Liklikadze, an RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent who has been reporting from the region, said he counted more than 200 Russian military vehicles beginning their withdrawal along Georgia's main east-west highway between Igoeti and Gori.
Citing a Russian military officer manning a checkpoint in the nearby Khurvaleti, Liklikadze said the withdrawal may proceed slowly because of bottlenecks at the tunnel separating North and South Ossetia.
"The officer explained the situation this way: At the Roki Tunnel, 150 officers of the FSB [Russia's Federal Security Service] are searching the columns of vehicles very thoroughly, and it takes a lot of time," Liklikadze said. "They're doing this in order to make sure that the soldiers don't take any looted goods or weapons or maybe even money that don't belong to them. So everyone is being checked, and as the officer said, that is why this process of withdrawal has dragged on for so long."Abkhaz Pullout Reported
Russian troops were also reported to be pulling out from the territory near Georgia's border with its second breakaway region, Abkhazia -- including Zugdidi, the largest city in the region.
There are signs, however, that Russian forces remain in the Black Sea port city of Poti and the strategic rail junction of Senaki.
Adding to the confusion over the Russian withdrawal is Moscow's insistence that hundreds of peacekeeping forces will remain in a buffer zone that extends into Georgia proper.
The deputy head of Russia's General Staff, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, during a news briefing in Moscow on August 22, said Russia plans to maintain numerous surveillance posts within the so-called "zones of responsibility."
A column of Russian artillery on the Gori-Tbilisi road near the flashpoint city of Gori on August 22.
"In order to stop groups of looters and prevent the delivery of unaccounted for weapons and ammunition," Nogovitsyn said, "18 peacekeeping surveillance posts have been set up along the administrative border between Georgia and South Ossetia."
Nogovitsyn explained that the peacekeeping boundary near the South Ossetia conflict zone is a jagged line that at points traverses Georgia's de facto border with its breakaway region.
Nogovitsyn also reported Georgian troop activity.
"Units of the Georgian armed forces are concentrating in central Georgia, restoring their combat capability, and preparing for further actions," he said. "[Georgian forces] are carrying out reconnaissance into the character and direction of the actions of Russian troops and South Ossetian formations, and are preparing military actions in the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict zone."Maps Of Buffer Zone
Moscow's envoy to the United Nations has said the withdrawal will be completed by the evening of August 22, while a top military official indicated that ground troops would be back on Russian soil in around 10 days.
Aptsiauri, RFE/RL's correspondent in Gori, was able to look at maps of the proposed buffer zone. He gave this account of how Russian General Vyacheslav Borisov, commander of Russian forces in the Gori region, interprets the terms of withdrawal.
"Yesterday [August 21], General Borisov had a fairly heated discussion with [Gori regional governor Vladimer] Vardzelashvili about the so-called buffer zone. Borisov had all kinds of maps out, and was referring to the 1992 [cease-fire] agreement, which stipulates that the conflict zone included quite a lot of villages north of Gori in Gori district -- including two villages that are located along the main east-west highway, Shavshvebi and Agara," Aptsiauri said. "So if we go with that [interpretation], it would mean that the so-called peacekeepers who would replace the regular Russian troops would have the right to control the main highway, and even establish checkpoints."
Outside Abkhazia, it is unclear whether the Russians will argue that the key Georgian cities of Poti and Senaki will fall inside any security zone.
"As far as I know, Senaki would not be [in any buffer zone]," says Lawrence Sheets, a Tbilisi-based analyst and Caucasus program director for the International Crisis Group. "Senaki is about 40 kilometers away from the border with Abkhazia. There is, I believe, a 14-kilometer zone on either side of the administrative border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. The Russians definitely have the right to patrol that area under the old agreements. Senaki is way away from there. What the Russians are saying is that it falls into the 'zone of responsibility' of the peacekeepers. I haven't heard them refer to a specific document that gives them the right to stay in Senaki or Poti."'Open To Debate'
Sheets also noted the legal status of the Russian peacekeeping force working under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States is "open to debate," considering Georgia's withdrawal from the organization last week.
The port town of Poti, in particular, is viewed as a potential entry point for humanitarian aid destined for the region and an indicator of Moscow's commitment to withdraw.
Rob Parsons, a journalist who reported from Georgia for the BBC and France 24 after fighting between Russia and Georgia broke out, says the speed with which aid enters Georgia is a key question.
He said from Paris on August 22 that "there is going to be a huge need for Western aid when the Russians finally do ship out. And it looks like it is going to come." And he indicated that Georgia's recovery effort, and that of its government, will largely depend on such deliveries.
"If [the aid] comes fast, if it is significant, then I think [President Mikheil] Saakashvili may be able to turn around and say, 'Look, this was always coming anyway. There was no escaping it, a clash with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now it's come and in many respects we've emerged stronger. We've got a genuine commitment from the West, our chances of joining NATO are accelerated, Russia has been forced to withdraw, and the economy will continue to grow,' Parsons said. "If he can say all those things, then he's in a stronger position. But a lot will depend on the speed and quantity of the aid."
Reuters quoted USAID administrator Henrietta Fore as saying today after a visit to Georgia that the government in Tbilisi is seeking $1 billion-$2 billion in aid to reconstruct infrastructure damaged in the conflict with Russia.
RFE/RL's Georgian Service and RF/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore contributed to this report; with additional wire reporting
Clashes In Georgia: Chronology
Video of the fighting in Georgia's breakaway regions, and the latest efforts to end the conflict (Reuters video). Play
For full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here