Russian troops have withdrawn from the key Georgian city of Gori, as confusion reigns about Moscow's insistence that it plans to keep hundreds of its troops in a buffer zone inside Georgia proper.
RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent in Gori, Goga Aptsiauri, reports that "not a single Russian soldier or piece of military hardware remains in Gori."
Georgian Security Council official Kakha Lomaia is quoted as saying that Russian troops have, indeed, left Gori and are also pulling out from the surrounding areas. Twenty Russian military vehicles carrying hundreds of troops were observed heading north from Gori toward South Ossetia.
Russia's UN ambassador has offered assurances that Moscow will comply with a cease-fire that ended fighting with Georgia by withdrawing Russian troops by the evening of August 22.
But the presence of Russian military convoys and the construction of checkpoints elsewhere in Georgian territory have raised tensions and led to questions of interpretation and Russia's commitment to its word.
While Western powers have called on Russia to immediately withdraw its troops and to respect Georgia's territorial integrity, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has argued that it is allowed to maintain a peacekeeping presence within a defined buffer zone.
Russia argues that it is allowed to expand its security zone under a 1992 agreement.
'Not Very Encouraging'
RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Koba Liklikadze is reporting from Khurvaleti, a Georgian village that is now home to a Russian military checkpoint. The village is located between Gori -- a city near the de facto border with South Ossetia, occupied by Russian troops -- and the village of Igoeti, site of another Russian checkpoint.
Liklikadze says the state of the Russian withdrawal is unclear, but that Russian troops were moving from Gori to Igoeti, which is just 30 kilometers from the Georgian capital.
"What we see is not very encouraging," Liklikadze said. "From the direction of Gori, three armored vehicles are moving in our direction, plus two trucks loaded with personnel. And they passed us and went in the direction of Igoeti. I asked one of the [Russian] officers at the checkpoint who was wearing a peacekeeping armband, and he said they don't intend to stay for long. When I asked him to be more concrete, he said, 'We are waiting for orders. I can't tell you anything. My boss is General Borisov."
RFE/RL correspondent Goga Aptsiauri 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," Aptsiauri reports. "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. So if we go with that agreement, it would mean that the so-called peacekeepers who would replace the regular Russian troops will have the right to control the main highway, and even establish checkpoints."
Speaking after a UN Security Council session held on August 21 to discuss the situation in Georgia, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said that "the idea is, by tomorrow night (August 22), all those forces...will move to within that perimeter, the peacekeeping perimeter."
General Vladimir Boldyrev, who commands Russia's ground forces in the region, told Russian news agencies on August 21 that it would take about 10 days for his troops to withdraw to Russian territory. But he said peacekeeping troops would remain within the security zone.
RFE/RL correspondent Aptsiauri said he saw maps that showed that the peacekeeping perimeter will cross Georgia's main east-west highway.
"I have to say, from witnessing all the discussions going on about the issue, I have the feeling that neither side has a good understanding of how to proceed," Aptsiauri said. "For instance, yesterday when Vardzelashvili tried to make the argument that the main highway of a sovereign country cannot be controlled by troops from another country, Borisov...tried to calm him down by saying the troops won't actually stand on the highway or hinder traffic, that they'd just stand off to the side. I managed somehow to have a look at the maps, and it's clearly marked at Shavshvebi and Agara that the buffer zone crosses the highway. So this is what they have on their maps."
Russia presented a draft resolution at an August 21 Security Council session that essentially mirrors the six-point peace plan brokered last week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
But while fellow council members seek a resolution based on the cease-fire, they are also looking for Russia to take the additional step of making mention of Georgia's territorial integrity. In addition, the United States, Britain, and France all reportedly insisted on an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops.
Ambassador Churkin did not indicate after the Security Council meeting when Moscow would call for a vote on its draft resolution, and said "we believe the six principles are clear and already implemented."
"Some were asking in consultation today why there is no reference to territorial integrity on our draft resolution? Our draft resolution again is a repetition, a reconfirmation of the six principles," Churkin said. "And you know what? There is no territorial integrity in the six principles. So, if we stick to the six principles which were adopted by the two presidents, there is not supposed to be any reference in the resolution to territorial integrity."
The United States' deputy UN ambassador, Alejandro Wolff, said that while Georgia's territorial integrity is not specifically mentioned in the six points of the cease-fire agreement, it "doesn't mean that the EU, which has articulated its position in a communique, somehow doesn't agree with the territorial integrity of Georgia and the need to reaffirm it."