Russian forces stepped up preparations Monday to withdraw from bases and checkpoints surrounding two separatist regions in Georgia, four days before a deadline being closely watched by the West.
Moscow must pull back thousands of troops from buffer zones surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Friday under the terms of a deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Russia left troops in the areas after they routed Georgian forces during an August war.
Heavy activity was observed at installations across Georgia — from around the central city of Gori, near South Ossetia, to Zugdidi in the west, near Abkhazia on the Black Sea.
At a checkpoint in Kvenatkotsa, northwest of Gori, an Associated Press reporter saw Russian soldiers destroying nonessential equipment before lowering the Russian flag at an adjacent hillside base. Soldiers milled around near seven military transport vehicles brought in to haul out personnel and equipment.
Georgia's Interior Ministry confirmed that Russian forces were making preparations Monday to pull out of at least eight posts across the country.
Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of the Russian peacekeepers in the Georgia-Ossetia conflict zone, told Russian media Monday that the six military posts to the south of South Ossetia would be removed within a day of the start of the withdrawal there. It was unclear when that would be.
"No problems are hindering the withdrawal of the observation posts from the southern limits of the security zone. The removal of material and of defense installations is proceeding simultaneously at all six observation posts," Kulakhmetov said, Interfax reported.
Cease-fire under scrutiny
Kulakhmetov asked the European Union to ensure the presence of two EU military observers at each post during the withdrawal, Russian news agencies reported.
A spokesman for the EU monitoring mission declined comment, citing confidentiality rules related to the talks.
The cease-fire also calls for both sides to return troops to the positions they held before the fighting broke out — but Russia's announced plan to keep some 8,000 troops in the regions well exceeds the number deployed there as peacekeepers before the fighting began.
Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the fighting.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday reaffirmed Moscow's intention to meet the withdrawal deadline, but accused Georgia of trying to sabotage the cease-fire deal by mounting a series of violent attacks on Russian targets across the region. Tbilisi said the allegation was baseless.
In the latest violence, the Abkhazia region said Monday one of its border guards was killed in a gunfight with Georgian police near the village of Nabakevi in the region's Gali district, adjacent to Georgian-controlled territory.
Russia also pointed to a deadly car bomb explosion outside Russian troop headquarters in South Ossetia on Friday and other recent violence as signs that "certain forces in Tbilisi ... are deliberately trying to exacerbate the situations in the region and provoke new military actions through a series of terror attacks."
Georgia's Interior Ministry has accused Russian intelligence services of organizing Friday's car bomb blast as an excuse to delay the troop withdrawal.