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Page last updated at 16:43 GMT, Friday, 22 August 2008 17:43 UK

Eyewitness: Russian troops pull back

Russian troops ride armoured personnel carriers near Igoeti
Georgians are keenly watching the extent of Russia's withdrawal

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Igoeti village, Georgia

When they left, they left fast.

All morning, the Russian soldiers had been standing listlessly around the checkpoint at Igoeti, just 35km (22 miles) from Tbilisi.

As they cradled their rifles and chatted to local villagers, it seemed they were in no hurry to go.

Then suddenly, at around noon, the first armoured vehicles appeared at speed from around a bend in the road.

Within half an hour tanks and other military vehicles were emerging from the undergrowth and lining up alongside the highway.

The soldiers sitting on top of their armoured personnel carriers seemed pleased to be withdrawing.

"I feel excited, wonderful," one soldier said. "I'm going home."

After brief goodbyes with some of the locals and journalists who had got to know them over the past week, they disappeared up the highway in the direction of South Ossetia, joining an ever-growing column of withdrawing Russian troops.

Tension

All that remained were the settling clouds of dust, tank tracks in the tarmac and an empty checkpoint.

That vacuum, though, was soon filled by Georgian police who arrived in large numbers in buses and pick-up trucks.

They had been waiting for this moment ever since the Russians arrived last Friday evening.


I'm glad the Russians have gone. No-one wants a war

Igoeti villager

There had been some tension then as a Russian armoured personnel carrier sat in the middle of the village, flying the Russian flag.

Today, they took back control of Igoeti, but rather than remove the checkpoint, they took it over, stopping some buses of Georgian villagers venturing further up the road.

The Russians, they said, still had their troops on the ground close by.

Indeed, a Russian checkpoint manned by peacekeepers was still in operation seven kilometres further along, and they were not letting the Georgian police cars go any further.

The queues stretched for around 300m, as the policemen waited for news of when they would be allowed to follow the departing Russian soldiers.

Asked when he thought the peacekeepers would also depart, one policeman responded: "Only [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin knows when they are leaving."

Buffer zone

At Igoeti, the locals villagers were pleased with the day's events.

"I'm glad the Russians have gone," said one man. "No-one wants a war."

But Georgians will now be watching keenly to see just how far back the Russians will go.

Moscow has said it will withdraw most but not all of its troops.

Some will remain within a security buffer zone.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the ceasefire on the ground, says it understands the zone should extend seven kilometres either side of the de facto border with South Ossetia.

The Russians have not yet defined the size and extent of that zone, and the issue is likely to cause tension in the days to come.

The presence of Russian peacekeepers too is a controversial one.

Moscow says it has the right to keep its forces in and around the South Ossetian area in order to protect the local population, many of whom hold Russian passports.

The Georgians feel quite simply that the presence of any armed Russian forces on their territory amounts to occupation.



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