Russia blocks Georgia's main port city

August 21, 2008 12:49:46 PM PDT
Russian forces dug trenches and built fortifications in key areas of Georgia Thursday, but also rolled columns of tanks north toward home, picking and choosing how their nation would comply with the terms of a peace accord. A top Russian general said it could be more than 10 days before the bulk of the troops return to Russia.

Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised that his forces would pull back as far as separatist Ossetia and a surrounding zone by Friday, Russian troops appeared to be in no hurry - even settling down in strategic spots. This raised concerns about whether Moscow was aiming for a lengthy occupation of its smaller, pro-Western neighbor.

An EU-sponsored cease-fire requires both Russian and Georgian forces to move back to positions held before fighting broke out Aug. 7 in Georgia's separatist republic of South Ossetia, which has close ties to Russia. The Russians are allowed to remain in zones around Georgia's borders with South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia.

The war in Georgia, a small country straining to escape Moscow's influence, has sent tensions between Moscow and the West to the highest levels since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

NATO, Russia's Cold War foe, said it had received a note from Moscow announcing that Russia is halting military cooperation with the trans-Atlantic alliance.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Polish counterpart signed a deal to build an American missile defense base in Poland after a top Russian general warned last week that Poland was risking an attack, possibly a nuclear one, by developing the base.

Russian forces took up positions Thursday at the entrance to Georgia's main Black Sea port city of Poti, excavating trenches, setting up mortars and blocking a key bridge with armored personnel carriers and trucks. Another group of APCs and trucks were positioned in a wooded area nearby.

"The pullback of Russian forces is taking place at such a tempo that by the end of Aug. 22, they will be in the zones of responsibility of Russian peacekeepers," Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the general staff, said at a briefing in Moscow.

But the commander of Russia's land forces, Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev, said Thursday that checkpoints in the security zones would be up and running Friday and that forces not involved in that effort would head back to Russia - but that it would take about 10 days after that for them to get there, moving "in columns in the established order."

An Associated Press cameraman was threatened by armed Russian troops near Poti, who stripped his video from his camera.

Russian troops also controlled the central Georgian city of Gori and the village of Igoeti, about 30 miles west of the capital of Tbilisi. Both are along Georgia's main east-west highway.

Russian soldiers were digging permanent structures, building high earthen berms and stringing barbed wire in at least three spots on the road between Gori and Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.

Some Russian troops and military vehicles were on the move, including 21 tanks an AP reporter saw heading toward Russia from inside South Ossetia. Columns of heavy weaponry - including tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks - were also seen moving in both directions on the road from Gori to Tskhinvali.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hailed the report of tank movements as a positive step.

"We are waiting ... for the Russians to respect their word," Kouchner told reporters in Paris. "We waited twice with dashed hopes. This time, it appears that there is at least the beginning of a fulfillment."

But in Washington, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the moves appeared to be cosmetic.

"There has not been much evidence of any significant Russian withdrawals. There have been what I would call some minimal movements to date," he said.

Outside Tskhinvali, several ethnic-Georgian villages were burning - many days after fighting had ended - and bore evidence of destruction from looting. Some Ossetians in the area said they were not prepared to live side-by-side with Georgians anymore.

"It's not they, it's we who will erase them from the face of earth," said Alan Didurov, 46.

The EU agreement says Russian forces can withdraw to a so-called "security zone" that extends 4.3 miles into Georgia from South Ossetia.

Russian forces are also allowed a presence on Georgian territory in a security zone along the border with Abkhazia, another separatist Georgian region, under a 1994 UN-approved agreement that ended a war there. But Poti is 20 miles south of Abkhazia and lies well outside the security zone. It is also at least 95 miles west of the nearest point in South Ossetia.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told The Associated Press late Wednesday that Russia was seizing strategic spots in Georgia even as it thinned out troops elsewhere. He called the Russian moves "some kind of deception game."

Port and city officials say Poti has been looted by the Russians over the past week, and Russian forces carried tables and chairs out on armored personnel carriers Thursday, while residents protested against Russia's continued grip on the country.

Renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who is Ossetian, was to lead a requiem concert for the dead in the devastated central square there Thursday night, part of an effort to win international sympathy and support for Russia's argument that its invasion of Georgia was justified.

Russian officials, including Medvedev, have suggested Moscow may recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. Western leaders have stressed that Georgia must retain its current borders.

Several thousand people rallied Thursday in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi to demand independence and there was a similar rally in Tskhinvali.

In a move sure to heighten tensions, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer loaded with humanitarian aid was heading to Georgia - the first of three U.S. Navy ships that will carry supplies such as blankets, hygiene kits and baby food to Georgia. The United States has also delivered aid to Tbilisi on 20 flights since Aug. 19.

The United Nations estimates 158,000 people in all fled their homes in the last two weeks.

Correspondents Mike Eckel and Sergei Grits in Gori, Tskhinvali and Igoeti, Georgia; Yuras Karmanau in Beslan and Tskhinvali; Raul Gallego in Poti, Georgia; and Jim Heintz, David Nowak, Maria Danilova and Jill Lawless in Moscow contributed to this report.


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