Russian troops dismantle west Georgia checkpoints

KHOBI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian soldiers were dismantling checkpoints in western Georgia on Wednesday, a Georgian official and a Reuters witness said, two days after Moscow pledged to pull back forces from deep inside its neighbor.

A Reuters television reporter saw soldiers removing concrete blocks and wooden posts at a checkpoint in the village of Pirveli Maisi near Khobi, about 30 km (20 miles) from the de facto border with breakaway Abkhazia.

Some 40 km (25 miles) west, in the Black Sea port of Poti, mayor Vano Saginadze said some soldiers and armored vehicles had been removed from two checkpoints at the entrance to the town, and trucks had taken away ammunition.

“They are actively dismantling the checkpoints,” Saginadze told Reuters.

Russian troops routed Georgian forces in a brief war last month after Georgia tried to recapture South Ossetia, which like Abkhazia is a separatist, pro-Russian region of the former Soviet republic.

Moscow has since recognized both provinces as independent states. But under Western pressure, it agreed on Monday to withdraw its soldiers within a month from buffer ‘security zones’ it set up on Georgian territory along their borders.

It also pledged to pull out within a week from the area around Poti, a small oil and dry grain shipment port. Its actions there will be seen by the West as a key test of Russia’s promises.

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In a separate incident on Wednesday, a Georgian policeman was shot dead near a Russian checkpoint at a buffer zone adjacent to South Ossetia.

Georgian police said the officer was shot in the head from the direction of the Russian checkpoint. They said Russian forces had denied involvement and promised to investigate.

Moscow said on Tuesday it planned to station around 7,600 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, more than twice the number based in the two regions before the war.

Russia previously had a peacekeeping force of 1,000 servicemen in South Ossetia and a contingent of about 2,500 in Abkhazia under peacekeeping mandates dating back to the early 1990s, when the two regions threw off Georgian rule.

The troops in the zones around Abkhazia and South Ossetia are to be replaced with an international monitoring force including a 200-strong European Union contingent.

Additional reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi; writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Mark Trevelyan