SUKHUMI, Georgia (Reuters) - The last of 400 Russian soldiers sent by Moscow to repair a railway in Georgia’s rebel region of Abkhazia began to pull out on Wednesday, ending a deployment which angered Tbilisi and its Western allies.
Loudspeakers played music from a brass band and children handed out flowers and Abkhazian flags to Russian soldiers at the opening ceremony of the 54 km (33 mile) railway line.
“It’s certain that all the personnel and all the equipment will be sent away from here,” the Russian commander, Lieutenant-General Sergei Klimets, told reporters after handing out medals to the soldiers.
Abkhazia is a lush, mountainous stretch of land which hugs the Black Sea. Rebels fought Georgia in a war after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union that only a 1994 United Nations ceasefire ended.
Now Abkhazia and Georgia’s other breakaway region of South Ossetia are at the centre of a row between Russia, which supports the rebels, and Georgia supported by the United States.
Georgia has accused Russia, which has about 3,000 soldiers in the region acting as peacekeepers, of trying to annex Abkhazia but Russia said the deployment of the unarmed railway soldiers was purely humanitarian aid.
Russia and the United States are competing for influence in the Caucasus, which the West sees as a vital route for exporting oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets.
At the railway ceremony, Guram Gubaz, head of the Abkhazian railway department, said around 200 Russian soldiers had already left — a handful on Tuesday but most on Wednesday morning — and the remaining 200 soldiers would leave later on Wednesday.
The Russian military has said over the last month that the soldiers would pullout of Abkhazia on July 29/30.
The railway line links Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi to the town of Ochamchira further south.
Gubaz told Interfax news agency it would carry stone from Ochamchira to the south Russian city of Sochi to help construction work for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
Former Soviet Georgia has angered Russia by pushing for membership of the NATO military alliance.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and James Kilner, editing by Angus MacSwan