by Vladimir Novikov, Tbilisi

Kommersant, Russia
May 15 2006

The first echelon with armored vehicles from the 62nd Russian military
base in Akhalkalaki is to set off to Russia from Georgia today. The
troops are withdrawing in compliance with bilateral agreements reached
on March 31 in Sochi. Under the accords, the base in Akhalkalaki is
to be closed by the end of 2007, while all military vehicles are to
be pulled out by the end of 2006.

Seven tanks, ten armored troop-carriers and other military equipment
are to be sent to Russia in the first echelon, said Col. Igor
Konashenkov, the aide of the commander-in-chief of the Russian
land forces. The echelon is to leave Akhalkalaki in the early noon
on Monday.

The echelon will travel to Russia through Azerbaijan. The Russian
military cargo will be guarded by Georgian officials while in Georgia
and by Azeri forces when the echelon reaches Azerbaijan, according
Col. Konashenko. The military reported no problems during the cargo
loading. Gen. Alexander Popov, the commander of the Russian troops
in Georgia, said he would gladly visit Georgia as a tourist after
the troops are pulled out in 2008.

However, the situation in Akhalkalaki was quite tense. Additional
police forces were sent to the town to oversee possible protest
rallies. Residents of Akhalkalaki, the town with the predominant
Armenian population, protest the withdrawal as many locals will
lose their jobs after the troops leave. Besides that, the Armenians
insist that the Russians have been the only guarantor of their safety
in Georgia.

The withdrawal, however, is ongoing.