Russia digs in as Georgia pullback date nears

Georgian soldiers suggest Russians trying to provoke them and justify a resumption of the conflict.

By
August 21, 2008 05:17
4 minute read.
Russia digs in as Georgia pullback date nears

Russian APCs 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Russian forces dug trenches and built sentry posts deep inside Georgia, showing few signs they would pull back later this week as promised. Georgian soldiers suggested the Russians were trying to provoke them and justify a resumption of the conflict, which over five days pounded the infrastructure of the small former Soviet republic and the morale of its troops. In Tbilisi, President Mikhail Saakashvili told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Russia was thinning out its presence in some of the towns it occupies, but was seizing other strategic spots. "What we're seeing now is a clear regrouping and also, again, some kind of deception campaign, saying, 'Look, we're moving out,"' Saakashvili said. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has pledged his forces would retreat by Friday to South Ossetia, the breakaway Georgian province at the heart of the war, and a surrounding security cordon. But there have been few signs of movement other than the departure of a small contingent of Russian soldiers from Gori, a strategically located city in central Georgia. On Wednesday, much of Georgia remained tense as Russian troops built a guard post out of timber on a hill outside Igoeti, about 30 miles from Tbilisi, and a large Russian convoy rolled near the western city of Senaki. Russian soldiers also set up what appeared to be semi-permanent camps in at least three places in western Georgia near the Black Sea port of Poti, with dozens of men digging in by armored personnel carriers and trucks. The warfare in a nation straining to escape Moscow's influence has sent tensions between Moscow and the West to some of their highest levels since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Polish counterpart signed a deal to build an American missile defense base in Poland. Last week, a top Russian general warned Poland was risking an attack, possibly a nuclear one, by developing the base. "It's 2008, and the United States has a ... firm treaty guarantee to defend Poland's territory as if it was the territory of the United States," Rice said. "So it's probably not wise to throw these threats around." A spokeswoman for Norway's defense ministry said Russia had told its embassy that Moscow plans to "freeze all military cooperation" with NATO and its allies. Officials at NATO headquarters said they had not been informed of such a move. South Ossetia is recognized internationally as part of Georgia, but Russia says the future of the province is up to provincial leaders - almost certainly more declarations of independence from Georgia. In a sign Russia plans to solidify control of South Ossetia, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Russia would build 18 checkpoints in the security cordon around the province, with 270 soldiers manning front-line posts. The parliament of another pro-Russia separatist region, Abkhazia, called on Russia on Wednesday to recognize its independence. Fighting flared in both regions during five days before Georgia and Russia agreed to a cease-fire. Western leaders have stressed Georgia must retain its current borders. "South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia," US President George W. Bush declared Wednesday in Florida. In Gori, no Russian troops or heavy weaponry could be seen Wednesday evening, including on the bridges and main access points. Earlier in the day, Russian troops had been strictly limiting access to Gori to residents and turning away foreign journalists. Shota Abramidze, a 73-year-old retired engineer, said Gori residents wanted the Russians out. "They've stolen everything. They've bombed everything. This is fascism, that's what this is." Along the main highway from Gori to Tbilisi, Russian peacekeepers stopped cars and checked documents of passengers. In Gori itself, Russian troops limited access to residents and turned away foreign journalists. In a back alley, dozens of people waited for promised food. At a military training school in the mountain town of Sachkhere, a Georgian sentry said Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers had shown up the day before and demanded to be let in, leaving only after a 30-minute standoff. The sentry said the Russians vowed to blow up facilities in the village of Osiauri. On Wednesday, Georgia said Russian soldiers destroyed military logistics facilities in Osiauri, but the claim could not immediately be confirmed. About 80,000 people displaced by the fighting are in more than 600 centers in and around Tbilisi. 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. A convoy of flatbed trucks carrying badly needed food to one of the areas most heavily hit by the fighting was waved through a checkpoint by Russian soldiers Wednesday. And the US State Department said Turkey was allowing three US military ships to pass from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea to deliver humanitarian relief to Georgia. Two US senators, both supporters of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, were in Georgia for a show of solidarity, including a stop at a refugee center in Tbilisi. "We can't let a bully do this, because if they do it here, they'll do it other places, and if we don't stop it here we'll have to stop it in a much more difficult way," Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said.

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