Russia dismantles last outpost beyond Georgia rebel regions

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Russian forces on Monday withdrew from the last outpost they had occupied outside Georgia's rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the two countries' 2008 war.

Following an announcement hailed by international mediators, Russian border guards dismantled a checkpoint, withdrew from the town of Perevi and moved inside the de facto borders of South Ossetia, Georgian and European Union officials said.

Georgia welcomed the move but said it was a "miniscule step" and called on Russia to fully comply with the EU-brokered ceasefire that ended the 2008 conflict.

The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia said the withdrawal took place without incident.

"Our patrols have been monitoring and we can confirm the withdrawal of the Russian border guard checkpoint in Perevi," EUMM spokeswoman Virginia Antonini told AFP.

"Everything went smoothly, there were absolutely no incidents," she added.

Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Georgian police had moved into Perevi following the withdrawal and would be setting up a checkpoint in the next few days.

Georgia's foreign ministry said in a statement that it "views such action as a step in the right direction", saying it was especially important for the local population in Perevi, a town of 1,100 residents.

"However it should be emphasised that the withdrawal... is just a miniscule step in comparison with commitments envisaged by the ceasefire," the ministry said. "Russia continues to brutally violate the ceasefire agreement."

Georgia has repeatedly accused Russia of breaching the ceasefire by keeping thousands of troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and by refusing to grant EU monitors access to the regions. Russia recognised both regions as independent states after the war.

Russia announced during security talks in Geneva last week that it would be withdrawing its troops from Perevi.

The move was hailed by international mediators as a rare step forward in talks between Georgia and Russia.

"The announcement of the withdrawal from Perevi is good news," French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Friday.

"There is no question that there are numerous unresolved problems to restore peace and stability in Georgia, but this announcement goes in the right direction."

Russian forces poured into Georgia in August 2008 to repel a Georgian military attempt to retake Moscow-backed South Ossetia and occupied swathes of the country before mostly withdrawing inside the rebel regions.

Russian forces had briefly withdrawn from Perevi in December 2008 but returned the next day, forcing out Georgian police. EU monitors had said the occupation of the town was a "clear breach" of the ceasefire and called on Russian forces to pull out.

© 2010 AFP

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