MOSCOW (AFP) — Russia began pulling some 400 troops out of the Georgian rebel region of Abkhazia on Wednesday, officials said, in a move welcomed by peace mediator Germany as a step towards calming tensions.
"All the work.... has been completed," the Russian defence ministry said in a statement, referring to railway repairs that the troops were carrying out.
Interfax news agency quoted an Abkhaz railway official as saying some 200 servicemen had already left for their permanent base in southern Russia.
The arrival in May of the railway repair troops, who are not armed but are under defence ministry command, sparked international concern after Russia also boosted its peaceekeping contingent in the volatile region of 2,500 men.
Abkhazia broke away from the rest of Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 in a war in which several thousand people died and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes.
The region has enjoyed diplomatic and economic support from Russia.
Germany, which has proposed a peace plan to resolve the conflict between Georgia and rebel Abkhazia, welcomed the pull-out.
"It is a step that we see as an urgently needed contribution to calm the situation around Abkhazia," said foreign ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner.
"The German government believes that in this context it is important for further substantial measures to calm tensions to follow," he added.
But Georgia said the presence of the troops was illegal in the first place.
"We cannot see the withdrawal of the Russian defence ministry railway troops from Abkhazia as a step towards defusing tensions in the conflict zone," the speaker of the Georgian parliament, David Bakradze, said in broadcast comments.
"The deployment of these troops and their actions in Abkhaz territory were absolutely illegal," he added.
Abkhaz rebel leader Sergei Bagapsh meanwhile warned of the threat of war.
"Despite the absence of combat with the enemy, we can never say that the war is over. The threat of armed conflict still exists," Bagapsh was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.
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