August 18, 2008 / 4:21 PM / 11 years ago

Tanks move, but still no sign of Russian pullout

GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - A Russian tank crashes through a barricade of Georgian police cars, explosions ring out from a military base as Russian troops destroy Georgian arms and ammunition, soldiers sit listlessly at the roadside.

Russian soldiers travel on top of armoured vehicles on a road near the Georgian town of Gori August 18, 2008. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Russia announced on Monday it had begun withdrawing its troops from Georgia under a six-point ceasefire plan. But neither Georgia nor wary and openly impatient Western powers saw any evidence of the tanks, trucks and troops leaving.

Georgia’s Interior Ministry said Russian forces had been blowing up stores of Georgian ammunition and weaponry at a base near the western town of Senaki in their drive to weaken Georgia’s 29,000-strong army.

Spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Moscow’s troops had also destroyed the runway at the base, about 240 km (150 miles) west of the capital Tbilisi.

“They are destroying everything and then pulling out of these places,” he said. “If they call this a pullout, then I do not understand the meaning of the word.”

The Russia-Georgia conflict began on August 7 when Georgia launched an attempt to retake the separatist province of South Ossetia, which broke with Tbilisi after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia struck back, pouring troops into South Ossetia and then occupying areas beyond the separatist region in central and western Georgia.

Three explosions were heard in Senaki on Monday. Similar blasts echoed near the strategically important town of Gori, in central Georgia.

At a military checkpoint near Gori, seized by Russian forces a week ago, soldiers in helmets stood next to a chicane of concrete blocks and checked the boots of cars, asking drivers for identity documents.

Further along the road, armored vehicles, trucks and tanks stood in orderly fashion in fields, covered by camouflage tarpaulin.

Asked how long he expected to be at his post, one young soldier from the town of Volgograd said: “We don’t know. Our orders are to stay here.”

TANK TRACKS ON ROADS

In Moscow, Col.-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn of the General Staff said a pullout had begun but did not give a timetable for how long it might take.

“I can say for certain when the New Year will come but I cannot give an exact date for the withdrawal of our troops from the conflict area yet,” Nogovitsyn said. “I can only say that we will not be leaving as fast as we came”.

Gori commands the country’s major east-west highway and rail link as well as the approaches to Russian-backed South Ossetia. It will be central to the withdrawal.

The Gori road bears the signs of 10 days of fighting and Russian military movements, the sun-baked asphalt churned up in places by the passage of tanks.

Georgian television showed Russian tanks crashing through a barricade of police cars on a narrow street in the village of Igoeti, half way between Gori and Tbilisi. One car, hitched onto the side of the tank was dragged about 100 meters along the road. The drivers were not inside.

Television showed a policeman and Russian officer locked in a heated dispute about the clearing of the street of cars.

Slideshow (18 Images)

“Don’t try to make rules for me,” the policeman said. The officer said he had orders to follow and walked off to his car.

Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said that Russian forces appeared bent on inflicting as much damage as possible on the Georgian economy.

“There are no signs at all that Russian forces are pulling out,” he told Reuters. “Quite the opposite. They are spreading out to other regions.”

Writing by Ralph Boulton; editing by Robert Hart

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