JAVA, Georgia (Reuters) - Russia will pull back on Wednesday from the southern edge of a buffer zone inside Georgia next to South Ossetia, a Russian officer said as EU monitors watched to see if Moscow would meet its withdrawal deadline.
It has until Friday to withdraw its troops from ‘security zones’ inside core Georgian territory — adjacent to South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia — under a ceasefire deal brokered by European Union president France following a brief war between Russia and Georgia in August.
“Tomorrow ... the pullout will occur of all six Russian peacekeeping checkpoints from the south of the security zone,” Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of Russian peacekeepers in the region, said in the South Ossetian town of Java on Tuesday.
“The pullback will be completed in one day,” he added.
At the Karaleti checkpoint, 20 km (12 miles) south of the boundary, a Reuters reporter saw a crane lifting concrete blocks that had been in the road. Excavators were filling in trenches.
A second line of Russian troops is located further north, on the de facto South Ossetian border. It was not immediately clear whether the pullback would be matched in the Abkhaz buffer zone.
Russia plans to station more than 7,000 soldiers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it recognized as independent states after the vie-day August war.
An EU mission monitoring the ceasefire would not be drawn on whether the pullout from the six checkpoints would mean Russia was in compliance with the ceasefire deal.
“We will have to verify for ourselves to make sure the deal has been met,” said a spokesman for the mission.
Georgian police are due to move in behind retreating Russian forces, to avoid a security vacuum the unarmed EU monitors fear could be exploited by militias active in the region.
Highlighting the risks, a spokeswoman for the EU mission said a group of monitors had been held briefly by “unidentified persons” in the buffer zone on Monday.
A second source familiar with the case said the monitors were detained for one hour by around 20 Ossetian militiamen near the de facto South Ossetia border. Their equipment was taken.
Late on Tuesday, the Georgian Interior Ministry said Ossetian militiamen had set fire to several houses in the Georgian village of Zardiant Kari in the buffer zone. Reuters could not independently confirm the information.
The August war erupted after the Georgian government tried to retake South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi’s rule in the early 1990s. Russia launched a major counter-offensive that drove the Georgian army out of South Ossetia. It troops then pushed further into Georgia, saying they were needed there to prevent more Georgian attacks.
The West has condemned Russia for a “disproportionate response” to Georgia’s actions.
The war seriously damaged relations between the West and Russia, and deepened Western concern over the security of the Caucasus as a vital transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea, bypassing Russia.
Moscow said it would hold the EU responsible for security in the border zones.
“In the document signed on Sept 8, the European Union assumed responsibility for security in these zones, so all enquiries on the matter will now be referred to them, not Georgia,” the Interfax news agency quoted top Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko as saying.
Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze and Matt Robinson in Tbilisi; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Trevelyan