GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - The Russian soldiers waved and smiled, but it was far from being a fond farewell on Friday as they pulled out of the Georgian town of Gori and headed for home.
“It’s such a relief,” said Valiko, a 68-year-old Georgian man, as a convoy of 10 armored personnel carriers rumbled past him on its way to South Ossetia and eventually the Russian border.
“I was waiting for this day and finally I see the Russians leaving my home town,” he said. “I’m so happy.”
Russian forces began pulling out on Friday from the Gori region that they stormed into this month after repelling a Georgian bid to retake the breakaway pro-Russian South Ossetia region.
For days, soldiers manned checkpoints on access roads to Gori and Georgia’s main east-west highway skirting the town, birthplace of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
The majority of the population fled, leaving several thousand elderly people queuing for hours in stifling heat for humanitarian aid handouts.
The Russian soldiers were unabashed.
“Russia is a powerful country,” said one soldier perched atop an APC waiting to withdraw.
“We showed the whole world just how powerful and strong we are,” he told a Reuters correspondent. He declined to give his name.
A second soldier said the order had arrived for them to leave for Tskhinvali. “We’re peaceful people,” he said. “We’re peacekeepers.”
The extent of the final Russian withdrawal is in doubt, with Moscow insisting it will maintain checkpoints in an unspecified area adjacent to South Ossetia inside Georgia proper.
Russian peacekeepers, stationed in South Ossetia since the territory broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s, will continue to operate in this zone. It is unclear how many peacekeepers will remain.
The brief war, triggered by an offensive by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to rein in separatists in Tskhinvali, killed hundreds, and forced an estimated 80,000 from their homes.
Georgian refugees were still arriving on Friday from villages between Gori and Tskhinvali, where houses have been looted and burned by militias, some whom entered from the North Caucasus over the mountainous Russian border.
Seventeen arrived under Russian escort on Friday, following 64 on Thursday.
Misha Khetagishvili, 78, said he left behind his wife, a South Ossetian. Having spent five days hiding in his cellar in a Georgian village inside South Ossetia, Khetagishvili tried to escape but says he was detained by Russian troops and held in the besieged South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.
Georgian and Russian forces fought fierce battles for control of Tskhinvali at the start of the war.
“It’s not a town anymore, it’s been destroyed,” he said. “I thought they (the Russians) would kill us.”
Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Ralph Boulton and Richard Balmforth