TBILISI (Reuters) – EU ceasefire monitors in Georgia reported the dismantling of a Russian checkpoint near breakaway South Ossetia on Sunday, saying it was the “first open sign” of a promised Russian troop pullback by October 10.
A spokesman with the European Union monitoring mission said the checkpoint was in the Ali region of Georgia, northwest of the town of Gori.
“Monitors have been observing the dismantling of the checkpoint,” the spokesman told Reuters. “This is the first open sign,” he said, in a reference to the expected Russian troop withdrawal following a five-day war between Russia and Georgia in August.
The regional police chief told Reuters the checkpoint was in the village of Nabakhtevi.
Russia sent forces into Georgia to repel an offensive by Tbilisi to retake South Ossetia from pro-Moscow separatists. Moscow said it would pull back troops by October 10 from “security zones” it established on Georgian territory adjoining South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia.
The October 10 deadline was set under a French-brokered ceasefire. The EU deployed an observer mission of more than 200 unarmed monitors on October 1, with the initial task of monitoring the Russian pullback.
The Nabakhtevi checkpoint is west of the main conflict zone, in a region that did not see the displacement of villagers witnessed in the area running directly north of Gori up to the de facto border, where human rights groups say militias and paramilitaries looted and burned Georgian homes.
In a previous withdrawal from the Black Sea area of Poti last month, Russian troops spent days dismantling checkpoints and moving supplies and equipment before finally pulling out.
Germany was quick to welcome the sign of withdrawal.
“It’s a positive first step which must be followed by others,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement published by his office on Sunday.
“It’s important for the stabilization of the Caucasus and for the forthcoming talks in Geneva that the Russian pullback from the security zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia is completed quickly and according to the agreed timetable.”
Internationally mediated talks are due in Geneva on October 15 to discuss security in the region and the return of refugees.
Months of skirmishes between separatists and Georgian troops erupted into war in August when Georgia sent troops and tanks to retake South Ossetia, a rebel Georgian province which threw off Tbilisi’s rule in the early 1990s.
Russian forces subsequently drove Georgian government troops out of South Ossetia. Moscow’s troops then pushed further into Georgia, saying they needed to prevent more Georgian attacks.
The West has condemned Russia for a “disproportionate response” to Georgia’s actions and demanded Moscow pull back its troops from Georgian territory outside the conflict zones.
Despite international censure, Moscow has also recognized both rebel regions as independent states and plans to station some 7,600 soldiers there. It says the EU monitors will not be allowed to operate in either South Ossetia or Abkhazia.