TBILISI — Russian forces began to pullout from parts of Georgia on Friday, but a top general said hundreds of soldiers would remain deep inside the country along the main strategic highway.
As the United Nations again failed to agree on a resolution on the conflict, Russia finally began to withdraw, in line with a French-brokered plan, from the strongly pro-Western ex-Soviet republic.
Troops poured into Georgia on August 8, initially to repulse a Georgian assault against Moscow-backed separatists in the South Ossetia region, then moving quickly to occupy areas beyond.
An international outcry has sent Russia's already chilly relations with the West into crisis.
Twenty Russian military vehicles carrying hundreds of troops headed north from near the Georgian city of Gori toward the separatist region of South Ossetia, an AFP reporter said.
The nine tanks, nine trucks carrying troops and two armoured personnel carriers headed towards the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali.
"The troops are leaving," Russian Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Bobrun said at the scene. "By 10:00 pm (1800 GMT) all the Russian troops in the area will have left."
In the west of the country, troops left a barracks in Poti, a key oil port. However they were dug in at checkpoints between the towns of Senaki and Zugdidi and also between Poti and Senaki.
Russia says 500 "peacekeepers" are to remain in a buffer zone around South Ossetia. An unknown number of combat troops also remain inside South Ossetia as well as another Moscow-backed separatist zone, Abkhazia.
In Moscow, the deputy chief of general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, showed journalists a map detailing what he said would be Russian "peacekeepers" "zone of responsibility."
This includes control of a key highway linking the Georgian capital to the sea.
Military posts are to be established outside Poti and troops will have the right to deploy anywhere on the road between Poti and Senaki, according to the map.
Two other stretches of the same road that come within the "zone of responsibility" flank Gori, just west of Tbilisi, the map showed.
The deployments effectively strip Georgia's control of the main east-west road, a vital economic artery.
In addition, Novogitsyn said that "if needed we reserve the right to boost these forces with units from the Russian peacekeepers contingent."
Georgian National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia told AFP that he would meet later with a Russian commander to discuss Russian deployment plans.
"We will listen to him, but of course it's not Russia that must decide these things unilaterally," he said, referring to the French-brokered peace plan.
Western capitals have rallied around Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is seeking NATO membership for his country of just under five million people.
US President George W. Bush told Saakashvili on Thursday that he wanted a quick end to Russia's "siege," the White House said.
"In the phone call, President Bush said that the United States is looking for Russian compliance with the agreement to withdraw their forces and an end to their siege of Georgia," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
NATO has condemned Russia's military intervention and in response Russia has frozen cooperation with the western alliance.
There was so far no clarity about when the bulk of combat troops — believed by analysts to be in the thousands, backed up by tanks and other heavy weapons — would quit South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
The commander of Russian ground forces in the region, General Vladimir Boldyrev, said Thursday that most troops "will require around 10 days to leave their current positions," ITAR-TASS reported.
But Georgia appears increasingly unlikely to recover control of its two separatist regions.
Russian officials and generals have made clear that Georgian troops will be barred from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Prior to the Russian intervention Georgian troops were present in South Ossetia as part of a mixed peackeeping force.
On Thursday, tens of thousands gathered in Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia, to demand Russian recognition of their independence.
Over 1,000 people attended a similar rally in South Ossetia's main town and on Friday, the South Ossetia parliament formally asked Russia to recognise its independence, RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Moscow has hinted at giving both recognition in a move that would risk sparking one of the deepest crises between Russia and the West since the Cold War. Russia's two houses of parliament are to discuss the issue Monday.
Copyright 2008 AFP