August 25, 2008

US in Standoff With Russia As Warship Delivers Georgia Aid to Georgia, Just Miles From Russians

By Shaun Walker

THE UNITED States military came within 60 miles of the Russian army in Georgia yesterday as an American warship arrived in the Black Sea port of Batumi to deliver humanitarian aid to the embattled Caucasus country.

USS McFaul arrived with a cargo of beds, mattresses and other supplies to help the thousands of Georgian refugees displaced from their homes during the past two weeks. It dropped anchor just outside Batumi and its cargo was ferried to the sub-tropical palm- lined shoreline by smaller boats.

It was the first of three US military ships that will come to Batumi with aid and is the strongest signal yet of Washington's displeasure with Russian actions in Georgia and the continuing Russian military presence there.

Just 55 miles up the coastline in Poti, a small contingent of armed Russian "peacekeepers" remains. Moscow has rejected calls to pull out immediately from the port city, which is far from any "buffer zone" around the conflict areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where it has won the right to keep peacekeeping troops. Russian troops had destroyed the port at Poti, taken Georgian soldiers captive, and seized four American Humvees waiting for shipment.

The Russian army withdrew the bulk of its soldiers from Georgia on Friday and witnesses also reported a large withdrawal of Russian troops from the conflict zone of South Ossetia back into Russia proper over Friday and Saturday. There was little sense that the pull-out was down to Western pressure; instead it was a case of "mission accomplished", having humiliated Georgia and its allies and destroyed military and civilian infrastructure.

There was also a sting in the tail of the occupation yesterday as a train carrying oil products, probably originating in Azerbaijan, exploded on the country's main east-west railway a few kilometres outside Gori. The Russians last week blew up a bridge on the railway line which was the only option for goods to be transported across the country during the Russian occupation.

Georgian officials said they believed the blast was caused by a mine left on the tracks by Russian forces, who until Friday had controlled that area. One-third of the train's wagons were on fire.

The US naval mission to Batumi follows several aid flights into Georgia by US military aircraft. While many feel that the Americans have offered little in the way of concrete action to protect their Georgian ally, it's clear the missions have irked Moscow.

The chief Russian spokesman on the situation in Georgia, deputy chief of the general staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said that Nato countries were using the humanitarian missions as a "cover" for building up naval forces in the Black Sea area. A source close to the Georgian government said that there had been "serious discussions" among US officials on whether to send the ship to Poti after it had unloaded in Batumi, risking an actual confrontation between US and Russian troops, but it appeared that the option had been shelved.

Still, the Georgians welcomed the aid and praised the American response. "The United States is our great friend," David Kezerashvili, the defence minister, told journalists in Batumi. "They have arrived at such a difficult time. It means we are not alone."

The repercussions of the crisis in Georgia continued to be felt in Kiev yesterday, as Ukraine's President, Viktor Yushchenko, used a speech at a military parade to mark Ukrainian Independence Day to renew calls for his country to join Nato.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.