Russia blocks Georgia's main port city

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">A Russian soldier guards armored vehicles allegedly captured from the Georgian military, in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008. The conflict erupted after Georgia launched a massive barrage Aug. 7 to try to take control of South Ossetia. The Russian army quickly overwhelmed its neighbor&#39;s forces and drove deep into Georgia, raising fears that of a long-term Russian occupation. &#40;AP Photo&#47;Dmitry Lovetsky&#41;</span></div>
August 21, 2008 6:18:11 PM PDT
Russian forces lingered deep in Georgia on Thursday, digging trenches and setting up mortars a day before Kremlin officials promised to complete a troop withdrawal from this former Soviet republic.But a top Russian general said it could be 10 days before the bulk of the troops left, and the mixed signals from Moscow left Georgians guessing about its intentions nearly a week after a cease-fire deal.

Strains in relations between Russia and the West showed no improvement. NATO, Moscow's Cold War foe, said Russia had halted military cooperation with the alliance, underscoring the growing division in a Europe that had seemed destined for unity after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Western leaders remained adamant that Russia remove its troops and do it quickly. "The withdrawal needs to take place, and needs to take place now," Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said in Crawford, Texas.

While refugees from the fighting over the South Ossetia region crammed Georgian schools and office buildings, a scattering of people left in a half-empty village said they were badly in need of basics.

"There is no bread, there is no food, no medicine. People are dying," said Nina Meladze, 45, in the village of Nadarbazevi, outside the key crossroads city of Gori. She said she stayed because she could not leave elderly relatives behind while other villagers fled to the capital, Tbilisi.

She said the village has been virtually abandoned since the war broke out. "I cannot go on like this anymore, I cry every day," she said.

Russian troops still controlled nearby Gori, which straddles Georgia's main east-west road, and the village of Igoeti about 30 miles west of Tbilisi. On the road between Gori and Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's battered capital, Russian soldiers built high earthen berms and strung barbed wire in at least three spots.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised earlier that his forces would pull back as far as South Ossetia and a surrounding security zone by Friday.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov reiterated that late Thursday, saying the troops would begin pulling back toward South Ossetia on Friday morning and be finished by day's end.

But the commander of Russian land forces, Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev, said it would take about 10 days for troops not involved in manning the security zones to complete their withdrawal to Russia, moving "in columns in the established order."

That suggested Russian soldiers could still be holding territory in Georgia up to the end of August.

The European Union-sponsored cease-fire says both Russian and Georgian troops must move back to positions they held before fighting broke out Aug. 7 in South Ossetia, which has close ties to Russia. The agreement says Russian forces also can be in a security zone that extends 4.3 miles into Georgia from South Ossetia.

Russian troops are also allowed a presence on Georgian territory in a security zone along the border with Abkhazia, another separatist Georgian region, under a 1994 U.N.-approved agreement that ended a war there.

Around Georgia's main Black Sea port city of Poti - outside any security zone - signs seemed to point to a prolonged presence.

Russian troops excavated trenches, set up mortars and blocked a key bridge with armored personnel carriers and trucks. Other armored vehicles and trucks parked in a nearby forest.

Officials in Poti said the city had been looted by the Russians over the past week. Associated Press journalists saw Russian troops carry tables and chairs out on armored personnel carriers Thursday as residents protested. An AP photographer and TV crew were briefly detained by armed soldiers near Poti, who seized their digital memory cards and videotapes.

Poti Mayor Vano Taginadze said Russian troops were setting up new roadblocks and "moving around in the city and looking and searching in different places." Residents in Poti demonstrated against the Russian presence, waving red-and-white Georgian flags and banners and shouting "Russian occupants go home" in English.

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

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hailed the report of tank movements.

"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."

Outside the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, several ethnic Georgian villages were burning Thursday - many days after fighting ended - and bore evidence of destruction from looting. Some Ossetians said they were not prepared to live alongside ethnic Georgians anymore.

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

Renowned conductor Valery Gergiev, who is Ossetian, led a requiem concert for the dead Thursday night in Tskhinvali - part of an effort to win international sympathy for Russia's argument that its invasion was justified by Georgia's attempt to regain control of South Ossetia by force.

"We want everyone to know the truth about the terrible events in Tskhinvali ... with the hope that such a thing will never again happen on our land," Gergiev said before the concert, held in front of the badly damaged South Ossetian legislature before a crowd flanked by two armored personnel carriers.

In a move sure to heighten tensions, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer loaded with humanitarian supplies headed toward Georgia through Turkey's straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It was the first of three U.S. warships carrying blankets, hygiene kits and baby food to Georgia.

Paul Farley, a spokesman at the U.S. naval base in Crete, said all three would reach Georgia "within the next week." He did not give their exact destination.

The United States has carried out 20 aid flights to Georgia since Aug. 19. The U.N. estimates 158,000 people have fled their homes.

"We anticipate staying as long as there is need and helping to set up the economy, because it's very important that the economy begins to take on its normal aspects. But it depends on our ability to do full assessments throughout Georgia," Henrietta Fore, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told reporters Thursday in Washington.


Load Comments