Bush Warns Russia, Sends Aid to Georgia
By Jennifer Loven
WASHINGTON – President Bush put the U.S. more firmly than ever on Georgia’s side in its conflict with Russia on Wednesday, sending humanitarian aid on U.S. military planes to help the embattled former Soviet republic and displaying growing impatience with Moscow’s aggression.
Six days into the fighting in the tiny, impoverished country wedged between Russia and Turkey on the Black Sea, Bush said Moscow’s apparent violation of a cease-fire agreement puts its aspirations for global acceptance at risk. In brief but stern remarks from the White House Rose Garden, the president demanded that Russia end all military activity inside its neighbor and withdraw all troops sent in recent days into Georgian territory.
Amid some fear that Russian troops might be setting up for some type of medium-term occupation of parts of Georgia, or might even press on to its capital of Tbilisi, Bush promised to “rally the free world in the defense of a free Georgia.”
Bush postponed to day’s planned start of a two-week Texas vacation for a couple of days to monitor developments. He also dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Paris for talks with Europeans and then to Tbilisi “to demonstrate our solidarity with the Georgian people,” and announced that a massive U.S. aid effort for devastated Georgians was already under way.
“This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it,” Rice said just hours before leaving for France. “Things have changed.”
In a sharp response to Bush’s speech, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Georgia’s leadership “a special project of the United States. And we understand that the United States is worried about its project.”
Russian tanks rumbled Wednesday into the Georgian city of Gori, a hub along the country’s main east-west highway, and Georgian officials said it was looted and bombed. Soldiers waved at journalists and one jokingly shouted, “Come with us, beauty, we’re going to Tbilisi.”
The convoy roared southeast toward the Georgian capital, but then turned north and set up camp about an hour’s drive away from it. Bush also cited evidence that Russian forces have entered and taken positions in the port city of Poti and that Russia was blowing up Georgian vessels.
Rice said Russia’s actions, taken together, show that it “has brutally pushed this military operation well beyond the bounds of anything that might have related to” the protection of Russian peacekeepers who have been stationed in the separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the early 1990s.
Later in the day, Georgian officials said the Russians pulled out of the western town of Zugdidi, near Abkhazia. But a U.S. intelligence official said it is believed that Russians are consolidating their positions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are loyal to Moscow.
The crisis erupted last week when Georgia tried to secure control over South Ossetia. Russia’s fierce military response expanded to Abkhazia along Georgia’s coast, and ended up on purely Georgian soil.
According to defense officials, it took until Wednesday afternoon for the U.S. to have what they called more robust intelligence on Russian movements around Gori.
With the military’s eyes and ears focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, intelligence-gathering was hampered through the weekend until the Pentagon authorized the repositioning of some satellites and was able to meld that data with reports from the ground.
Bush’s statement Wednesday represented his clearest – though still unspecified – threat to Moscow.
“In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century,” the president said. “The United States has supported those efforts. Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk. “
Tough words aside, there appears to be little the U.S. can – or will – do to punish Russia. In one demonstration of the administration’s sensitivity over its actions, Bush has taken just one question on the crisis, during a TV interview at the Beijing Olympics, and has never publicly discussed any specific penalty.
The administration and its allies are debating whether to expel Moscow from an exclusive club of wealthy nations. The U.S. already has pulled out of a joint NATO-Russia military exercise scheduled for Friday in the North Pacific. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. will be reviewing other military-to-military cooperative programs with Russia as well.
Bush also gave repeated and unqualified assurances of “America’s unwavering support for Georgia’s democratic government.”
And he announced that U.S. military assets and personnel would be deploying into the conflict zone. Although they are going only on a humanitarian mission, Bush made a point of noting that “we will use U.S. aircraft, as well as naval forces” to distribute supplies. He warned Russia not to impede relief efforts in any way.
All this appeared designed to answer criticism that Bush has not done enough to stand by his 2005 pledge, made from the center of Tbilisi before tens of thousands of citizens, to “stand with” the people of Georgia.
War’s a beach: Olympians settle it on sand.
President Bush sent U.S. troops to Georgia on Wednesday to oversee a “vigorous and ongoing” humanitarian mission. The operation was to include American naval forces and C-17 military cargo planes, bringing clothes, blankets, medicine and other supplies to refugees.
Bush also said he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to France and then to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said the U.S. mission “means that Georgia’s ports and airports will be taken under the control of the U.S. Defense Department.” The Pentagon stressed it had no such plans.
Georgian officials said the Russians had looted and bombed the city of Gori before they left. Moscow denied the accusation. A BBC reporter in Gori said Russian tanks were in the streets while their South Ossetian allies seized cars, looted homes and set houses on fire.
Besides the hundreds killed since hostilities broke out last week, a United Nations agency estimates 100,000 Georgians may have been uprooted.
Sporadic clashes continued in South Ossetia where Russians responded to Georgian snipers.
Georgian TV showed boats ablaze in the harbor of the Black Sea port of Poti.
Originally published by Jennifer Loven Associated Press .
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