Georgia says Russian tanks in Gori violate truce

Georgian officials say Gori, a central hub on Georgia's main east-west highway, being looted and bombed by the Russians.

Georgians run 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Georgians run 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Russian tanks, troops and paramilitaries rolled into the strategic Georgian city of Gori on Wednesday, apparently smashing an EU-brokered truce designed to end the six-day conflict that has uprooted tens of thousands and scarred the Georgian landscape. Georgian officials said Gori, a central hub on Georgia's main east-west highway, was being looted and bombed by the Russians. Moscow denied the claim, but it appeared to be on a technicality: a BBC reporter in Gori said Russian tanks were in the streets but it was Russia's South Ossetian allies who were seizing Georgian cars, looting Georgian homes and setting some homes ablaze. "Russia has treacherously broken its word," Georgia's Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said Wednesday in Tbilisi, the capital. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russian troops were near Gori to secure weapons left behind by the Georgians. To the west, Russian-backed Abkhazian separatists pushed Georgian troops out of Abkhazia and even moved into Georgian territory itself. They defiantly planted a flag over the Inguri River and laughed that retreating Georgians had received "American training in running away." The twin developments came less than 12 hours after Georgia's president accepted a cease-fire plan brokered by France. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia halted military action Tuesday because Georgia had paid enough for its attack last week on South Ossetia. The EU peace plan calls for both sides to retreat to the positions they held prior to the outbreak of fighting late last Thursday. That phrasing apparently would allow Georgian forces to return to the positions they held in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and clearly obliges Russia to leave all parts of Georgia except South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But none of that was happening Wednesday as the plan ran into the stark reality of Russian battlefield dominance. Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili blasted Western nations for failing to help Georgia, a US ally that has been seeking NATO membership. "Not only those who commit atrocities are responsible ... but so are those who fail to react," he declared. "In a way, Russians are fighting a proxy war with the West through us." The administration of US President George W. Bush later demanded that Russia end all military activities in neighboring Georgia, and dispatched US aid to devastated Georgians. Bush announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would head Thursday to France and then Tbilisi to help Western diplomatic efforts in the crisis. He also said a US C-17 military cargo plane loaded with supplies was en route to Georgia. "The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia and insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected," Bush said at the White House. Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia has handed out passports to most in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and stationed peacekeepers in both regions. Georgia wants the Russian peacekeepers out, but Medvedev has insisted they stay. Meanwhile, Georgia's security chief said Russian forces targeted three Georgian Coast Guard boats in the Black Sea port of Poti, and Georgian television showed boats ablaze in the harbor. Bush expressed concern that Russian forces have entered and taken positions in Poti, that Russian armored vehicles are blocking access to that port and that Russia is blowing up Georgian vessels. Lavrov, however, denied that Russian troops were anywhere near the city. Determining what is happening in Georgia has been complicated by the stream of biased and often incorrect information coming from both Russian and Georgian officials. The Georgian president's comments have grown increasingly exaggerated. On Wednesday, Saakashvili said on national television that the US arrival of a military cargo plane with humanitarian aid "means that Georgia's ports and airports will be taken under the control of the US Defense Department." US officials promptly denied that. "We have no need, nor do we intend to take over any Georgian air or seaport to deliver humanitarian aid," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Russia at first denied that tanks were even in Gori but video footage proved otherwise. About 50 Russian tanks entered Gori in the morning, according to Lomaia. The city of 50,000 people lies 15 miles south of South Ossetia, where much of the fighting has taken place. Russian deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn admitted that Russians went into Gori, but not in tanks. He said Russians were looking for Georgian officials to discuss the EU truce, but could not find any. A Russian government official said Russian troops checked a Georgian military base near Gori and found abandoned weapons and ammunition, then moved the ordnance to a safe place. An AP Television News crew saw Russian troops block Lomaia, the chief of Georgia's Security Council, from reaching Gori. Lomaia, who has spoken out repeatedly against Russian actions in the conflict, was trying to travel from Tbilisi to Gori. No explanation for the incident was available. An AP reporter saw dozens of Russian trucks and armored vehicles leaving Gori, roaring southeast. Soldiers waved at journalists, and one soldier jokingly shouted to a photographer: "Come with us, beauty, we're going to Tbilisi!" But the convoy turned north and left the highway about an hour's drive from Tbilisi, and set up camp for the night off the road. Some Russian units were camouflaged with foliage. The convoy was mainly support vehicles, including ambulances, although there were a few heavy cannons. It had about 100 combat troops and another 100 medics, drivers and other support personnel. Just six miles away, about 80 well-equipped Georgian soldiers were forming what appeared to be a new frontline, armed with pistols, shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and Kalashnikovs. Sporadic clashes continued in South Ossetia, which Russia attributed to attacks by Georgian snipers. "We must respond to provocations," Nogovitsyn said. In the west, Georgian troops acknowledged Wednesday that they had completely pulled out of a small section of Abkhazia they had controlled. Georgia insisted its troops had been driven out of Abkhazia by Russian forces. At first, Russia said separatists had done the job. Then Nogovitsyn admitted Wednesday that Russian peacekeepers had disarmed Georgian troops in Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge - the same peacekeepers that Georgia wants withdrawn. The effect was clear. Abkhazia was out of Georgian hands and it would take more than an EU peace plan to get it back in. Abkhazia lies close to the heart of many Russians. Its Black Sea coast was a favorite vacation spot in Soviet times and the province is just down the coast from Sochi, the Russian resort that will host the 2014 Olympics. Georgian officials said Russian troops pulled out of the western town of Zugdidi near Abkhazia late Wednesday after controlling the region's main highway for days. Ron Redmond, the chief spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Wednesday that his agency was helping evacuate about 1,500 people fleeing fighting in the Kodori Gorge. He said the UN ran a convoy of about 300 people from the area to the Georgian town of Zugdidi. In Brussels, Belgium, the EU agreed to consider deploying European peacekeeping monitors to the area. The World Food Program sent 34 tons of high-energy biscuits to help the tens of thousands uprooted by the fighting. Georgian refugees have streamed into Tbilisi and the western Black Sea coast while South Ossetian refugees headed north to Russia. Those left behind cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered near-deserted cities. Russia has accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in South Ossetia. The claim couldn't be independently confirmed. Georgia says at least 175 Georgians have died in Russian air and ground attacks. Human Rights Watch said it witnessed South Ossetian fighters looting ethnic Georgians' houses and recorded multiple accounts of Georgian militias intimidating ethnic Ossetians. The report contained independent confirmation of rights violations by each side. At the Beijing Olympics, Georgian women rallied Wednesday to beat their Russian counterparts in beach volleyball, the first head-to-head clash of the two nations. "Russia and Georgia are actually friends. People are friends," said Levan Akhtulediani, leader of Georgia's beach volleyball team. "But you know, it's not - in the 21st century, to bomb a neighbor country - it's not a good idea." "I say once again, it's better to compete on the field rather than outside the field," he added.