Russia starts withdrawing of military equipment from base in Georgia

Under an agreement signed on March 31, Russia is to withdraw from two bases in Georgia - Akhalkalaki and Batumi - by 2008. The pullout from Akhalkalaki in the south of the country is to be completed by December 2006.

The Russian military began dismantling the Akhalkalaki base at about  Moscow time ( Tuesday) and the first batch of equipment and materiel has been withdrawn, the ministry said. The equipment is being withdrawn to Tsalka in eastern Georgia and some of it will be redeployed to a Russian base in neighboring Armenia later.

The pullout began several hours earlier than expected, reportedly to avoid protests by local residents in this largely ethnically Armenian region of Georgia. Even so, some 100 people rallied in the town of Akhalkalaki to voice their opposition to the Russians' departure, RIA Novosti reports.

The Akhalkalaki base provides many ethnic Armenians with jobs and the community sees the presence of Russian troops as a guarantee of its security.

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