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Georgia Skeptical of Russian Troop Pullback

Georgia is expressing skepticism about Russia's troop withdrawal announcement, even as Russian tanks and soldiers pull back from position deep inside Georgian territory. VOA correspondent Peter Heinlein in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi reports the pullback leaves several key Russian checkpoints in place.

Georgia's President of Parliament David Barakadze Friday accused Russia of stalling its military pullback from Georgia, making a mockery of President Dmitri Medvedev's withdrawal pledge. The Russian leader made the deal in talks mediated by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, but Barakadze suggested the tanks rolling away from the Georgian towns of Gori and Senaki are largely symbolic.

"So far what we witness is delay. We have first signs of withdrawal at this point, but let's see how this thing goes and what matters is very much is that there should not be sense of satisfaction because of this withdrawal, because it's not a deal," Barakadze said.

Georgian police watched Friday as Russian tanks and military vehicles drove down from strategic hilltops about 40 kilometers outside Tbilisi toward the Russian-controlled region of South Ossetia. But a small group of soldiers calling themselves 'peacekeepers' remained on a main highway south of the key town of Gori.

Similar troop movements were observed toward the Russian enclave of Abkhazia in the far west of the country.

Russia is also retaining a checkpoint on the road to the strategic Georgian port of Poti, which handles much of the country's commercial trade. The checkpoints appeared designed to cripple Georgia's economy.

U.S. General John Craddock, during a visit to Tbilisi this week, said if the Russians are indeed leaving, it is at, in his words 'a snail's pace'. The influential deputy chairman of Georgia's Security and Defense Committee, Nica Rurua, says it is too early to judge whether the pullout is real. He tells VOA the Russians might be fooling around.

That view is widely held in official Georgian circles. In an interview, former Parliamentary President Nino Burjanadze termed the Russian pullout claim disingenuous.

"Russia troops are not only in South Ossetia and Tskinvali and Abkhazia but Russian troops are in Gori, nearby villages, western part of Georgia, this proves that measures Russia said were an attempt to create peace in South Ossetia has nothing to do with truth. Otherwise they have nothing to do in Gori, Poti," he said.

Russia's defense minister Friday said the withdrawal negotiated with French President Sarkozy is complete. But a U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington said the Russians are without a doubt failing to live up to the terms of the French-mediated deal.

A senior Russian general later confirmed that 18 checkpoints would remain in what was called a 'buffer zone' around South Ossetia, where fighting broke out early this month.

President George Bush earlier told Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili the United States is looking for Russia to comply with the withdrawal agreement, and to end what Mr. Bush called Russia's "siege" of Georgia.