Russia Will Leave Georgian Regions, Medvedev Says

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KARALETI, Georgia — European Union monitors in white shirts and bright blue berets began patrolling a buffer zone Wednesday outside the breakaway region of South Ossetia that has been controlled by Russian troops and separatists since an August war in Georgia.

The deployment paves the way for a promised Russian pullback of its remaining troops from areas they occupied outside South Ossetia and another separatist region in Georgia.

Georgians in villages beyond Russian checkpoints welcomed the Western observers, who are to monitor the cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian troops. Some frightened residents of villages damaged by arson and looting they blame on South Ossetians said the EU came too late.

Russian troops had said Tuesday that none of the EU observers would immediately be permitted in the buffer zone outside South Ossetia, raising concerns that Moscow was backtracking on its commitments.

But EU monitors _ whose job is to observe the cease-fire and the Russian pullback _ arrived on schedule. They were quickly allowed to pass through Russian checkpoints near two Georgian villages on the perimeter of the so-called security zone.

"The situation is very calm," said Ivan Kukushkin, a Russian officer in charge of the checkpoint near the Georgian village of Kvenatkotsa.

Russia still plans to keep around 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and the other breakaway region of Abkhazia, which the EU and U.S. consider to be violations of its cease-fire commitments. Moscow has refused to allow the EU monitors inside the regions themselves.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said there are no ideological grounds for a new Cold War or any other kind of conflict with the United States, a staunch supporter of Georgia's pro-Western government.

"We do not have such ideological differences around which a new cold or any other kind of war could start," Medvedev said at a news conference after meeting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero outside St. Petersburg, Russia.

In Karaleti, a village on a main road leading from Georgian-controlled territory to South Ossetia, Vitaly Shavishishvili said he and his relatives are living in a cowshed after looters burned down their two-story house and stole two of their vehicles.

"We only count on ourselves," said Shavishishvili, 24.

Marauders had set fire to more than 30 houses in the village and looted the local store, then blew it up with hand grenades, said Zaira Mamagulashvili, 62.

"No one is in control. We are afraid of everyone," added Misha Sukhitashvili, another Karaleti resident. "A Russian soldier is the kind of guy who after he has a drink is capable of anything."

Under cease-fire agreements brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the EU, Russian troops are to withdraw from so-called security zones surrounding South Ossetia and the other Russian-backed separatist region, Abkhazia, within 10 days of the EU deployment Wednesday.

There was no evidence of an imminent Russian withdrawal.

"The Russians gave us plans for dismantling their (checkpoints) but didn't say when," EU mission director Hansjoerg Haber told reporters.

At the Russian checkpoint near Kvenatkotsa, an armored personnel carrier was parked up the hill near camouflaged tents and there was no sign of any preparations for a Russian troop pullback.

Medvedev vowed to abide by Russian commitments.

"Russian peacekeepers will be completely withdrawn from Georgian territory within the established time frame, as determined in the agreement," Medvedev said.

He clearly did not mean Russia would withdraw from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it has recognized as independent and no longer considers part of Georgia.

In France, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said the deployment was going smoothly and that the monitors have been able to go "wherever they planned to go."

The 200 monitors and dozens of support staff are not based inside the security zones but in four semi-permanent locations on Georgian-controlled territory, including the central city of Gori near South Ossetia and the Black Sea port of Poti, key targets of Russian forces.

Haber said 102 monitors were in the field Wednesday in 14 separate patrols, and they reported no major incidents.

Russia and Georgia agreed to the observer mission as part of an updated cease-fire plan following the war, which ended with Russian and separatist forces in control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russians also dug in on other territory in Georgia.

The war began Aug. 7 when Georgian troops launched an offensive to regain control of South Ossetia, and Russia sent a large force that quickly routed the Georgian military and pushed deep into the small Caucasus Mountains nation, occupying large swaths.

Georgia says it was provoked. The Kremlin insists military action was necessary to repel Georgian aggression _ which it claims was encouraged by the U.S. Moscow also said it needed to protect Russian citizens and peacekeepers in the region.

"We did the right thing," Medvedev said in a ceremony in an ornate Kremlin reception room after giving medals to soldiers who fought in the war. "We have shown that Russia can protect its citizens, that all other nations must reckon with it."

The U.S., EU and NATO have urged Russia to revoke its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and withdraw its troops to their pre-conflict positions, as demanded in the cease-fire. Russia has made clear it will not do so, and the war has badly damaged its already deeply troubled relations with the West.


Associated Press writers Mansur Mirovalev and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Bazaleti and Odisi, Georgia; and Irina Titova in Strelna, Russia, contributed to this report.