US warship to Georgian port partly held by Russia

September 5, 2008 7:50:41 AM PDT
The flagship of the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean fleet anchored outside a key Georgian port Friday, defiantly bringing in tons of humanitarian aid to a city still partly occupied by hundreds of Russian troops. The USS Mount Whitney was the first Navy ship to travel to Poti since Georgia's five-day war with Russia last month. The continued presence of Russian troops here has been a major point of friction between Russia and the West, which insists Russia has failed to honor a deal to pull forces back to positions held before fighting broke out Aug. 7.

The in-your-face anchorage at Poti came as U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited nearby Ukraine, another former Soviet republic that feels threatened by Moscow's military aggression.

Cheney pledged in Kiev, the capital, that the United States was committed to Ukraine's security and freedom and that it should not be forced to live under Russia's "threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion."

The Kremlin has watched the arrival of the USS Mount Whitney and other U.S. warships carrying aid with deep suspicion, but a Russian Foreign Ministry official said Friday no military action was planned in response to the U.S. naval presence in the Black Sea.

Russian forces bombed Poti, which has a large oil shipment facility, attacked the port and sank eight Georgian naval vessels in the harbor during the fighting. Heavily armed soldiers that Russia calls "peacekeepers" are still camped just 4 miles (6 kilometers) from the port along major roads.

Still, traffic flowed freely past two checkpoints Friday and the only visible military activity was a Russian jeep heading toward the city.

Ketino Kebuchava, the owner of a small grocery store in Poti, welcomed the arrival of the American warship.

"We are a small country and we need help," he said. "We welcome anyone but the Russians. We want the Russians out of our city and out of our country."

The Mount Whitney will unload aid at Poti's commercial port Saturday, right next door to Poti's badly damaged naval base.

Georgia's fleet was basically wiped out by the Russians.

The missile boat Dioskuria - the flagship for Georgia's small maritime force - stood with its hull under water, its badly damaged communications masts protruding from the water. The windows of Georgia's naval headquarters were shattered, the buildings pockmarked by large caliber ammunition fired by jets.

According to the port's director of security, Vakhtang Chichradze, there was little the Russian forces didn't steal - hauling away arm chairs, light switches, radiators as well as five U.S. made Hummer military vehicles.

"From the military port, they took armchairs, toilets - everything," he said.

Two U.S. ships have already come and gone from Georgia carrying humanitarian aid in recent weeks, but they anchored at Batumi, to the south, a smaller port with no Russian military presence.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other officials have suggested the U.S. is delivering weapons to Georgia along with humanitarian aid. But Cpt. John Moore, commander of the task force of ships that have brought aid to Georgia, said Moscow's suspicions were unfounded.

"There are absolutely no weapons of any sort on these ships," he said. Aid included blankets and powered milk.

Moscow had signaled it would not impede the ship's movement.

But, contrary to earlier reports, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the US European Command, said Russians won't be inspecting the aid shipment.

"That will not be allowed," Dorrian said. "The port of Poti is Georgian sovereign territory."

Georgian Defense David Kezerashvili told the Associated Press that the arrival of the Mount Whitney sent a strong message to Moscow.

"It's very important for an American ship to stand for the defense of democracy against the totalitarian regime of Russia, to come to Poti," he said.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry official Andrei Nesterenko offered a measured response to Mount Whitney's arrival.

"There is no talk of military action," he said Friday, but again questioned why the United States was using warships.

"It is unlikely that warships of this class can deliver humanitarian aid in great quantities," Nesterenko said.

In Portugal, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia is "deepening its isolation" by not honoring commitments it has made regarding Georgia.

The West's response to the Georgia conflict has thwarted Russia from achieving its "strategic objectives" in the war, she said at a news conference in Portugal's capital before heading to Libya.

Before Ukraine, Cheney visited oil-rich Azerbaijan and then Georgia, and Washington announced $1 billion in U.S. economic aid to help Georgia rebuild after the war.

During his closely watched trip, Cheney reiterated Friday that Ukraine would eventually join NATO, despite fierce resistance from Moscow.

"The United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well-being and security," Cheney said following talks with President Viktor Yushchenko. "We believe in the right of men and women to live without threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion or intimidation."

The show of support was important for Yushchenko's Western-leaning government, which has become increasingly nervous about its relations with Moscow. Yushchenko has pushed strongly for closer ties with the European Union and NATO, upsetting both the Kremlin and Ukraine's large Russian-speaking minority.

"We value our strategic bilateral relationship highly," Yushchenko told Cheney. "On the majority of the issues, including Georgia, we have an understanding with the United States."

He has also objected to Russia using its ships stationed in Sevastopol, a leased Russian military base in Ukraine, during the war, and condemned Russia's decision to recognize Georgia's two separatist areas as independent states.

Cheney met separately with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, discussing regional security and efforts to diversify energy supplies.

Cheney's visit came during a political crisis pitting Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, coalition partners, against one another, setting Ukraine's government teetering on the verge of collapse.


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