Partial Russian pullout angers west

· Some checkpoints and 8-mile buffer zone remain
· US and France attack failure to comply with ceasefire deal

Russia last night claimed to have completed its long-awaited withdrawal from Georgia, after a day which saw mile-long columns of tanks and armoured vehicles pulling out of their forward positions and heading back north to Russia.

Russian forces began pulling out of Gori yesterday afternoon. At 8.30pm (local time) last night Georgian police forces finally entered the town after the last Russian tanks rumbled out. The main east-west highway across Georgia reopened for the first time in nine days.

Last night, however, both the US president George Bush and French president Nicholas Sarkozy accused Russia of failing to "comply" with the ceasefire deal, after Moscow said it intended to leave behind 2,500 troops on Georgian territory.

The deputy chief of Russia's general staff, Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said more than 2500 "peacekeeping" troops with armoured cars and helicopters would remain inside a new "buffer zone" bordering the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgia immediately denounced the move. The White House said the Russians had palpably failed to live up to their obligations, adding: "Establishing checkpoints, buffer zones, are definitely not part of the text." David Miliband, the foreign secretary, said he was "deeply concerned" that Russia still had not withdrawn to pre-conflict positions.

Under the Sarkozy-brokered agreement Russian forces are obliged to withdraw to the line they occupied prior to Georgia's incursion into separatist-run South Ossetia on August 7/8. The text is, however, vague. It allows the Russians to take "additional security measures".

Russia now apparently insists that a previous agreement permits it to station troops in a new "security zone" between Gori and South Ossetia's capital, Tshkinvali. Georgia and western diplomats say this is a clear breach of the ceasefire deal.

Yesterday's semi-withdrawal follows a series of delays and mixed signals from the Kremlin about when - and indeed if - it intended to leave Georgia. It came amid intense international pressure from the US, the EU and others for an "immediate" pullout.

Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev, who signed the agreement last weekend, promised the withdrawal would start yesterday. The first signs of a pullout came when Russian troops abandoned their Igoeti checkpoint, 43km outside Tbilisi, yesterday afternoon.

"We're going home. Our mood is marvellous, beautiful. We came here, experienced war, and are going back in one piece," Osman, a 23-year-old Russian solider from Dagestan told the Guardian last night. He added: "The only shame is we didn't make it to Tbilisi."

Yesterday Shota Utiashviavi, a spokesman for Georgia's interior ministry, welcomed Russia's departure from Gori. But he said Moscow appeared determined to leave behind a permanent military presence on Georgian territory.

"There's been no withdrawal from western Georgia. They are putting up checkpoints in [the port of] Poti. The ceasefire agreement clearly says that they don't have any right to block any major road or to be in major urban areas," he said.

Russia has suggested its new buffer zone could extend at least eight miles beyond its old positions. South Ossetian troops have also occupied towns outside the original rebel-controlled enclave - but inside the old Soviet-era borders of South Ossetia.

Many Georgians, however, last night expressed joy at Russia's pullout. "It's beautiful. I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I feel free," Koba Chirodze, 41, from Vanni, near Gori, said.


Luke Harding in Gori

The GuardianTramp

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