KARALETI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russia pulled back its troops on Wednesday from buffer zones it set up on Georgian territory during a summer war, but Georgia demanded it take further steps before a deadline of Friday.
The Russian Defense Ministry said troops had removed all six of their checkpoints in the buffer zone around Georgia’s rebel province of South Ossetia, ahead of the Friday deadline stipulated by a French-brokered ceasefire deal.
Russian troops remain inside South Ossetia and a second, pro-Russian breakaway region, Abkhazia, which Moscow has recognized as independent states and promised to protect.
“At 2030 Moscow time (1630 GMT) the last column of Russian peacekeepers withdrew into South Ossetia. The pullback is completed,” Igor Konashenkov, aide to the commander of the Russian military’s ground forces, told Reuters.
Troops were also seen pulling back from close to Abkhazia.
“Russia seems to have completed most of the withdrawal,” said Hansjoerg Haber, head of an EU monitoring mission, adding that his team was still verifying the situation on the ground.
Russia sent tanks and troops in August to repel a Georgian military assault to retake South Ossetia. Its heavy counter-offensive drew condemnation from the West, and deepened fears over the security of the Caucasus as a transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe, bypassing Russia.
A Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman said the pullback from the buffer zones was complete.
But Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said Russian troops still had to quit two disputed enclaves within South Ossetia and Abkhazia by October 10. Tbilisi says the Georgian-populated enclaves — Akhalgori and the Kodori gorge — have for years not been part of the rebel regions.
The dispute underlined the potential for renewed conflict, as more than 200 EU observers patrol the zones to monitor the fragile ceasefire.
“By October 10 ... Russian forces have to withdraw definitely from the territories which never used to be part of the conflict regions of South Ossetia or Abkhazia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” Tkeshelashvili told a teleconference.
Russia plans to keep 7,600 troops in the rebel regions, twice as many as before the war that began on August 7 and ran for five days.
“All Russian forces that are here now in Georgia ... that entered the territory of my country from August 7 onwards, they have to be withdrawn,” Tkeshelashvili said.
A Reuters reporter followed a convoy of about 20 military trucks and armored vehicles out of the main Karaleti checkpoint and saw it cross the de facto border with breakaway South Ossetia, 20 km (12 miles) further north.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised the role of the EU in ending the crisis in a speech heavily critical of Georgia’s main backer, the United States.
“When other forces in the world were reluctant or incapable of doing this, it was in the European Union that we found a ... responsible and pragmatic partner,” Medvedev told a conference in the French city of Evian.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Macedonia, said: “I am pleased that Russia appears to be fulfilling its obligation under the ceasefire to withdraw in compliance with Friday’s deadline in Georgia.”
Russia said it would call at talks in Geneva on October 15 for an embargo on the sale of offensive weapons to Tbilisi, and for a security mechanism to prevent Georgian attacks.
(Additional reporting by Matt Robinson in Tbilisi, Liutauras Strimaitis in Zugdidi, Georgia, Guy Faulconbridge and Conor Sweeney in Moscow and Kristin Roberts in Ohrid, Macedonia)
Writing by Matt Robinson, editing by Mark Trevelyan