Russia withdraws all troops from Georgia

/ Source: The Associated Press

A top Russian general said early Thursday that Russia has completed its withdrawal of troops that had been based in Georgia since the Soviet collapse, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

The presence of Russian troops in the ex-Soviet republic was one of the longtime irritants between Georgia and its giant neighbor.

"There are no more Russian troops in Georgia, there remain only peacekeepers ... in Abkhazia and those that are part of the combined forces in South Ossetia with the participation of Georgia," the news agency quoted Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Ground Troops Gen. Alexei Maslov as saying.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are two separatist regions of Georgia that have been outside Georgian control since the mid-1990s. Georgian leaders complain that Russian troops in both regions support the separatists, and their continued presence is likely to remain an issue of hot dispute between Tbilisi and Moscow.

But the final removal of troops that were based in Georgia as a holdover from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union would eliminate another of the most contentious points in Russian-Georgian relations.

Calls to the Georgian Defense Ministry for comment early Thursday morning went unanswered.

The RIA-Novosti news agency cited an aide to Maslov, Col. Igor Konashenkov, as saying that the final convoy of troops and equipment, which had been based in Batumi in far southwestern Georgia, crossed into Armenia just after midnight. Those troops are to be based in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri, Konashenkov was quoted as saying.

Russia completed the withdrawal of troops from its other base in Georgia, Akhalkalaki, in June and had agreed to close the Batumi operations by October 2008. It was not immediately clear why the withdrawal was done ahead of schedule.

Allegations in August
But the move comes amid heightened tensions between the neighbors.

In August, the Georgian government claimed that a Russian warplane barged into the country's airspace after flying over South Ossetia and dropped a missile. The missile did not explode and no injuries were reported, but the incident sparked concern in Georgia and the West that Russia was trying to intimidate Georgia.

Russia denied the entire incident, with some Russian officials alleging Georgia had fabricated the story to justify sending troops into South Ossetia to try to retake control of the region.

Also Wednesday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili charged that Russia recently sent troops, several dozen armored vehicles and artillery systems into Abkhazia that were not part of the peacekeeping operations there. Russia's military chief of staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, denied the allegations, according to ITAR-Tass.