Russian Convoy Advances, Despite Truce
By Christopher Torchia and Matti Friedman
OUTSIDE GORI, Georgia – A Russian military convoy defied a cease- fire agreement Wednesday and rolled through a strategically important city in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which claimed fresh looting and bombing by the Russians and their allies.
President Bush said a massive U.S. aid package was on the way for tens of thousands uprooted in the conflict and demanded Russia “keep its word and act to end this crisis.”
“The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia and insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected,” Bush said sternly in Washington.
One day after the Kremlin and its smaller neighbor agreed to a French-brokered cease-fire to end the dispute over two pro-Russian breakaway territories, the pact appeared fragile at best.
An Associated Press reporter saw dozens of Russian trucks and armored vehicles leaving the city of Gori, about 20 miles south of the separatist region of South Ossetia and home of a key highway that divides Georgia in two, and moving deeper into Georgia.
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.
Georgian officials said the Russians had looted and bombed Gori before they left. Moscow denied the accusation, but it appeared to be on a technicality:
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.
As confusion reigned on the first day of the cease-fire agreement, Bush called a Rose Garden speech to express concern about reports the Russians were already breaking it.
He said he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first to France and then to Tbilisi to reinforce U.S. efforts to “rally the world in defense of a free Georgia.”
For her part, Rice said: “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. Things have changed.”
The president said a huge U.S. aid effort was underway, including American naval forces and C-17 military cargo planes, to get clothes, blankets, medicine and other supplies to refugees.
The European Union agreed to consider deploying European peacekeeping monitors to the area.
Besides the hundreds killed since hostilities broke out last week, a United Nations agency estimates 100,000 Georgians may have been uprooted. A spokesman said the U.N. refugee agency was helping evacuate about 1,500 people fleeing the Kodori Gorge in the breakaway province of Abkhazia alone on Wednesday.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili conducted a blitz of interviews with news outlets at home and abroad and made a series of claims, some of which were disputed as inaccurate or exaggerated.
He said on national television that the U.S. arrival of a military cargo plane with humanitarian aid “means that Georgia’s ports and airports will be taken under the control of the U.S. Defense Department.”
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell stressed the United States had no plans to take over Georgian airports or seaports to deliver the aid.
“It is simply not required for us to fulfill our humanitarian mission,” he said. “We have no designs on taking control of any Georgian facility.”
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 news agencies quoted him saying the United States would have to choose “support for a virtual project” or “real partnership” on issues such as U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran and other world tension spots.
Georgia’s president criticized Western nations for failing to help Georgia, a U.S. ally that has been seeking NATO membership. “In a way,” he said, “Russians are fighting a proxy war with the West through us.”
The conflict centers on South Ossetia and another region claimed by Georgia that leans Russian, Abkhazia. When Georgia cracked down on South Ossetia on Aug. 7, Russia sent its tanks and troops into the two regions and deeper into Georgia proper.
Georgia, bordering the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Abkhazia lies close to the heart of many Russians. Its coast was a favorite vacation spot in Soviet times and the province is just down the coast from Sochi, the Russian resort that will host the 2014 Olympics.
Russia has distributed passports to most in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and stationed peacekeepers there since the early 1990s. Georgia wants the peacekeepers out, but Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has insisted they stay.
The peace plan apparently would allow Georgian forces to return to the positions they held in South Ossetia and Abkhazia before Aug. 7.
and clearly requires Russia to leave all parts of Georgia except South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Nevertheless, Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said 50 Russian tanks entered Gori on Wednesday morning. Some of the Russian units that later left to camp outside the city were camouflaged with foliage.
The convoy was mainly support vehicles, including ambulances, although there were a few heavy cannons. There were about 100 combat troops and another 100 medics, drivers and other support personnel.
About six miles away from the camp, about 80 well-equipped Georgian soldiers were forming what appeared to be a new front line, armed with pistols, shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and Kalashnikovs.
Sporadic clashes continued in South Ossetia where Russians responded to Georgian snipers.
In the Black Sea port of Poti, and Georgian television showed boats ablaze in the harbor. Georgia’s security chief also said Russian forces targeted three Georgian boats, while Lavrov said Russian troops were nowhere near the city.
For several days, Russian troops held the western town of Zugdidi near Abkhazia, controlling the region’s main highway. An AP reporter saw a convoy of 13 Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers in Zugdidi’s outskirts Wednesday. Later in the day, Georgian officials said the Russians pulled out of Zugdidi.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree Wednesday saying that Russian navy ships deployed to the Georgian coast will need authorization to return to the navy base Russia leases from Ukraine.
The rights group Human Rights Watch said it has witnessed South Ossetian fighters looting ethnic Georgians’ houses and has recorded multiple accounts of Georgian militias intimidating ethnic Ossetians. The report was important independent confirmation of the claims by each side in the Russia-Georgia conflict.
Meanwhile, at the Olympics in Beijing, Georgia and Russia clashed in competition for the first time. Georgia rallied to beat Russia in beach volleyball, two sets to one.
“Russia and Georgia are actually friends. People are friends,” said the Georgian beach volleyball team leader, Levan Akhtulediani. “I say once again, its better to compete on the field rather than outside the field.
Originally published by The Associated Press.
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