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(photo credit: AP)
The US must choose between the "virtual project" of Georgia and real partnership with Russia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday, after US President George W. Bush demanded that Russia end all military activities in the former Soviet republic, and dispatched US aid to devastated Georgians.
Lavrov said Georgia's leadership was "a special project of the United States. And we understand that the United States is worried about its project."
He was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that at some point, the United States would have to choose "either support for a virtual project, or real partnership on issues that really demand collective action," referring to US cooperation with Russia in the UN Security Council on Iran and other global hot spots.
Bush made a brief but stern speech in the White House Rose Garden.
"The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia and insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected," he said, adding that Moscow's apparent violation of the cease-fire put its global aspirations at risk.
"To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis," Bush continued.
The US president announced that "to demonstrate our solidarity with the Georgian people" he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Paris to assist the West's diplomatic efforts on the crisis, and then on to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
He also announced a massive US humanitarian effort that would involve American aircraft as well as naval forces. A US C-17 military cargo plane loaded with supplies landed in Georgia on Wednesday, and Bush said that Russia must ensure that "all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, roads and airports," remain open to let deliveries and civilians through.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said later that a second supply-laden C-17 would arrive Thursday and that an assessment team was to arrive soon in Georgia to determine other needs. The Pentagon also is preparing to send the hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, if needed, though it would take weeks to get to the region.
The administration also will review what military help is needed for Georgia's now-shattered armed forces, Whitman said.
The president spoke amid a fast-moving chain of events, with Rice moving a planned morning news conference to the afternoon and the White House scrubbing altogether its regular morning briefing with reporters.
Despite extensive intelligence resources and deep ties to the Georgian military, which has been trained by the US, the administration has struggled to determine what's happening on the ground, for instance whether Russia is going farther into Georgia or threatening Tbilisi.
"There are confused reports and varying reports that are coming in," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We're doing our best to keep up with them and to best understand the situation...It's not the easiest thing in the world given the geography and the cutoff of information."
Still, Bush said developments on the ground appear to contradict Russia's promise of a halt to military operations. Perino called reports of the cease-fire violation "credible."
Neither the president nor any Cabinet member has answered questions on the record about the 6-day-old crisis except for remarks that Bush made in a television interview Sunday on the sidelines of the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Bush spent the morning meeting with his national security team in the White House Situation Room, the nerve center for monitoring international developments. He talked by telephone with Georgia's embattled president, Mikhail Saakashvili, and with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who traveled to both Tbilisi and Moscow and is leading a European Union initiative to bring about peace there.
Rice was leaving for Paris Wednesday evening. And Bush delayed the start of his vacation by "a day or two" to monitor developments, said presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino. He had been scheduled to leave Thursday for a two-week stay at his Texas ranch.
The Russian operation began after Georgia last week tried to secure control over South Ossetia, a breakaway region loyal to Moscow. Russia's fierce military response expanded to Abkhazia, another separatist province on Georgia's coast, and ended up on purely Georgian soil.
On Wednesday, Russian tanks rumbled into the Georgian city of Gori - after Saakashvili said he accepted a cease-fire plan brokered by France that called for both sides to retreat to their original positions, and after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia was halting military action.
Georgian officials said Gori was looted and bombed by the Russians. An AP reporter later saw dozens of tanks and military vehicles leaving the city, roaring south and deeper into Georgia. Later in the day, Georgian officials said the Russians pulled out of the western town of Zugdidi, near Abkhazia.
Bush cited specific concerns: that Russian units have taken up positions on the east side of Gori, which could allow Russia to block an east-to-west highway, divide the country and threaten the capital of Tblisi; that Russian forces have entered and taken positions in the port city of Poti; and that Russia is blowing up Georgian vessels.
Lavrov denied that Russian troops were anywhere near Poti.
Saakashvili, meanwhile, called the Western response inadequate. "I feel that they are partly to blame," he said. "Not only those who commit atrocities are responsible ... but so are those who fail to react."
Bush, during a 2005 visit to Tbilisi, personally assured the people of Georgia that the United States would be its unflinching ally. "The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone," he said then.
The tiny, poverty stricken nation of Georgia has staked its future on leaning West and joining NATO is one of its key goals. Bush has supported this move, but the security alliance's leaders put the requests from Georgia, as well as another ex-Soviet republic, Ukraine, on hold in April for fear of upsetting relations with Moscow.
In Tbilisi, the US embassy is passing out $1.2 million in disaster packages containing medical supplies, tents, blankets, bedding, clothing and other items, said State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. The US is also sending 104,000 doses of antibiotics in response to a Georgian request.
The relief agency USAID is adding an initial $250,000 for emergency relief supplies.
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