Russia Blocks Georgia’s Main Port City
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POTI, Georgia — Russian forces dug trenches and built fortifications in key areas of Georgia today, but also rolled columns of tanks north toward home, picking and choosing how their nation would comply with the terms of a peace accord.
Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has pledged his forces would pull back from Georgia by tomorrow, his 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.
Nonetheless, a top Russian general claimed troops were moving out in accordance with the agreement.
“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,” Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the general staff, said at a briefing in Moscow.
An EU-sponsored cease-fire requires both Russian and Georgian forces to move back to positions held before fighting broke out August 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.
Yesterday, 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 today 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.
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.
The 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,” Mr. 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, a 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.
The Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, told The Associated Press late yesterday 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 today, 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 tonight, part of an effort to win international sympathy and support for Russia’s argument that its invasion of Georgia was justified.
Russian officials, including Mr. 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 today 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.
It was the first of three U.S. Navy ships that will carry supplies such as blankets, hygiene kits, and baby food to Georgia. A spokesman for the Souda Bay U.S. naval base in Crete, Paul Farley, said all three ships were expected to reach Georgia “within the next week.” He did not give their exact destination.
America has also delivered aid to Tbilisi on 20 flights since August 19 to ease humanitarian problems arising from the conflict.
The United Nations estimates 158,000 people in all fled their homes in the last two weeks — some south to regions around Tbilisi, some north to Russia.
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.