Tens of thousands of people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia call for independence.
The defence minister said that a contingent of Russian troops would stay “within the limits of the security zone” in a peacekeeping role. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that 500 Russian soldiers were to remain at eight checkpoints.
Shota Utiashivili, Georgia’s interior ministry spokesman, told Al Jazeera early on Friday that he was sceptical that Russian forces would finally pull out.
“This is the fifth time that Russia has said it will withdraw its troops, and it has broken the four previous ones,” he said.
“Yesterday they were digging trenches at [the Black Sea port of] Poti and on the main highway with the west of Georgia. The main question is what they leave behind because we are getting reports that they are trying to mine all the infrastructure, the bridges, the roads, the buildings.
Al Jazeera Jonah Hull, reporting fom Tbilisi, said that there was no sense that the Russian forces were preparing to leave.
“We have reports from the checkpoints and Kaspri and Igoeti, just 35km from the capital, where Russian checkpoints have been for the last several days, that they are still there,” he said.
“They still command positions in the hillsides rounds those towns and above those towns, artillery is still dug in, tanks still lying covered in camouflage, and beyond that … right up to the town of Gori there is a huge amount of Russian military activity.”
But Kakha Lomaia, an official from Georgia’s national security council, said that General Vyacheslav Borisov, the commander of Russian forces in the Gori region, had informed him that Russian troops would leave Gori and remove all checkpoints from the nearby main road by 8pm (16:00 GMT).
“Let’s see what happens,” he told reporters.
The announcement came as the United Nations Security Council remained at odds over a draft resolution backing a European Union-sponsored ceasefire plan signed by both Russia and Georgia.
The United States, France and Britain have been insisting on an immediate withdrawal by Russian forces as well as a commitment from Moscow to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity.
However, Russia has drafted a second alternative resolution which restates and endorses the six-point peace plan.
|Churkin said he would seek a deal restating the six-point peace plan [AFP]
“Our draft resolution is a reconfirmation of the six-point agreement, and there’s no territorial integrity in the six principles,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, said after a council meeting on Thursday.
“We believe the six principles are clear and already implemented.”
Alejandro Wolff, US deputy ambassador to the UN, said that Washington would not be able to support the Moscow draft and questioned whether Russia was trying to “strangle” the Georgian government.
“We have a presence of so-called Russian peacekeeping forces at key Georgian choke points that will control economic life, it will control humanitarian activities … That’s why clarifications are so important.”
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, France’s deputy UN ambassador, said there were “encouraging signs of a beginning of a [Russian] withdrawal” from Georgia but added that much remains to be done for “the withdrawal to be consistent” with the ceasefire plan.
The ceasefire pact demands that both Russian and Georgian troops move back to positions they held before fighting broke out August 7, but Russian forces also can be in a security zone that extends 7km into Georgia from South Ossetia.
They are also allowed a presence on Georgian territory in a security zone along the border with Abkhazia, another separatist Georgian region, under a 1994 UN-approved agreement that ended a war there.
In another diplomatic development on Thursday, Russia told the Nato military alliance that it was suspending all co-operation, according to a spokeswoman for the alliance and Moscow’s envoy to Nato.
Moscow has been angered by Nato accepting that Georgia could join the alliance one day, and on Tuesday it was further riled when foreign ministers said future ties would depend on the Russian withdrawal.
However, the US played down the significance of the announcement.
“For all practical purposes, military-to-military co-operation had really already been ended with the Russians,” Gordon Johndroe, US National Security Council spokesman, said.
“I can’t imagine a circumstance right now that we would engage in military co-operation with the Russians until the situation in Georgia is resolved.”
Nato and Russia began several co-operation projects under an agreement in 2002, including sharing expertise to combat heroin trafficking out of Afghanistan, developing battlefield anti-missile technology, joint exercises and help with rescue at sea.
Sergei Konoplyov, director of the US-Russia security programme at Harvard University, told Al Jazeera that all co-operattion with Nato was symbolic.
“I think what is happening right now is that Russian has shown its force in Georgia, and it saw the weak reaction of the west,” he said.
“The Nato meeting came after 11 days of military actions in Georgia and I think many European countries, members of Nato, didn’t want to have this meeting, they wanted Russia to pull out before they sat down and made any hard comments on Russia.”