POTI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian troops withdrew from the region around Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti on Saturday, within a September 15 deadline set for the first phase of a pullback brokered by France.
Georgia welcomed the move, and said it hoped Russian forces would keep to an October 10 deadline to withdraw completely from Georgian territory outside the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
A Reuters reporter saw troops in armoured personnel carriers and trucks pull out from positions on the outskirts of Poti after dawn. The reporter said Russian forces had also left another three positions on the way to nearby Senaki.
Russia’s foreign ministry said later on Saturday that the withdrawal had been completed two days before the deadline set in the agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and endorsed on September 8 by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
“Russia expects the same strict and good-willed adherence to this agreement from all parties concerned, above all from the Georgian leaders, and likewise from the European Union,” the ministry said in a statement on its Web site.
Russia sent forces deep into Georgia last month after repelling an attempt by Tbilisi to retake the breakaway, pro-Russian South Ossetia region.
On Monday, Moscow agreed to withdraw its troops from “security zones” inside Georgia around South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, within a month.
The deal, brokered by Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union, included a commitment to pull out by September 15 from “monitoring posts” in the Poti region, where an oil and dry grain shipment port is considered vital to the Georgian economy.
“This is an example of Europe being united, and the aggressor having to retreat,” National Security Council Secretary Kakha Lomaia told Reuters. “I’m optimistic the other troops will be withdrawn,” he said.
Russia followed up Monday’s pullback deal a day later by saying it would station about 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which the Kremlin recognized last month as independent states.
Moscow’s intervention in neighboring Georgia, an ex-Soviet republic that has angered Moscow by pushing for membership of NATO, drew widespread international condemnation.
Although major fighting has now stopped, sporadic violence persists in and around both breakaway regions.
Two Georgian policemen have been shot and killed in separate incidents this week. The latest death took place on Saturday after shots were fired at a Georgian police checkpoint from a village in Abkhazia.
Georgia sits at the heart of the volatile Caucasus, home to pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to world markets and favored by the West because they bypass Russia.
But Western governments have so far shied away from imposing sanctions on Russia, in part because for many of them Russia is the principal energy supplier.
Medvedev said the agreement to withdraw from undisputed Georgian territory was made possible after the EU offered guarantees that pro-Western Georgia would refrain from any use of force against its separatist regions.
The deal also depends on the deployment of an international monitoring force, including a 200-strong EU unit. Russia says it will only allow the monitors to operate in the buffer zones, not in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Russia said it was morally obliged to send in its forces last month to prevent what it called genocide in South Ossetia, after Georgian forces began shelling the capital Tskhinvali.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says he was responding to separatist shelling of ethnic Georgian villages.
But the 40-year-old leader has come under fire this week from political opponents, who say he walked into a war Georgia could not possibly win.
Tbilisi will host NATO ambassadors and Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Monday and Tuesday, looking for fresh commitment to its membership prospects from an alliance divided over the wisdom of such a move.
Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze and Simon Shuster; writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Richard Balmforth