Source AP ©

Last Russian soldier leaves Georgia

Russian troops that were based in Georgia from Soviet times are withdrawn from the country.

The Russian troop presence had long been a source of irritation between Georgia and its giant neighbor. Russian peacekeepers remain, however, in two separatist regions of the former Soviet republic, said Gen. Alexei Maslov, commander of Russian ground troops, according to the news agency.

"There are no more Russian troops in Georgia, there remain only peacekeepers ... in Abkhazia, and those that are part of the combined forces in South Ossetia with the participation of Georgia," Maslov was quoted as saying.

Calls to the Georgian Defense Ministry for comment went unanswered.

The breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been outside Georgian control since the end of wars in the mid-1990s. Georgian leaders complain that Russian troops in both regions support the separatists, and their continued presence is likely to continue being an issue of hot dispute between Tbilisi and Moscow .

But the final removal of troops that were based in Georgia as a hangover from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union would remove another of the more contentious points in Russian-Georgian relations.

The RIA-Novosti news agency cited an aide to Maslov, Col. Igor Konashenkov, as saying that the final convoy of troops and equipment, which had been based in Batumi in far southwestern Georgia, crossed into Armenia just after midnight Moscow time (2000 GMT Wednesday). Those troops are to be based in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri , Konashenkov was quoted as saying.

Russia completed withdrawal of troops from its other base in Georgia, Akhalkalaki, in June and had agreed to close the Batumi operations by October 2008. It was not immediately clear why Russia chose to complete that withdrawal so far ahead of time.

But the move took place as Russia has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism for its activities in Georgia .

In August, Georgia claimed that a Russian warplane barged into Georgian airspace after flying over South Ossetia and dropped a missile. The missile did not explode and no injuries were reported, but the incident raised wide concern in Georgia and the West that Russia was trying to intimidate Georgia .

Russia hotly denied that any of its planes had made an incursion or dropped a missile, and some officials alleged Georgia had fabricated the incident as a provocation to justify sending troops into South Ossetia to try to retake control of the region.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on Wednesday charged that Russia recently had sent troops, several dozen armored vehicles and artillery systems into Abkhazia that were not part of the peacekeeping operations there. Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky denied the allegations, ITAR-Tass reported.

Saakashvili last week imposed a state of emergency, including a ban on independent television newscasts, after police broke up protests in Tbilisi that Saakashvili claimed were clandestinely organized by Russia to try to overthrow his government.

Saakashvili has pushed for Georgia to become a NATO member, and Western countries including the United States have provided substantial military aid to Georgia , moves that many Russians regard as attempts to encroach on territory that historically had been under Moscow 's control or influence.

The troops at Batumi and Akhakalakai, and at a base in Tbilisi that was closed in 2006, were the remnants of Soviet forces that suddenly found themselves based in foreign countries when the USSR split into 15 separate countries.

Russia still bases troops in Armenia and established an air base in ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan after the United States opened a base there in 2001 to support military operations in Afghanistan .

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