Russian convoy heads into Georgia, violating truce
Russian convoy heads into Georgia, violating truce
By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI, Associated Press Writer 5 minutes ago
OUTSIDE GORI, Georgia - Russian troops and paramilitaries thrust deep into Georgia on Wednesday, rolling into the strategic city of Gori and violating the truce designed to end the six-day war that has uprooted 100,000 people and scarred the Georgian landscape.
Georgian officials said Gori was looted and bombed by the Russians, who denied the claim. An AP reporter later saw dozens of tanks and military vehicles leaving the city, roaring southeast.
Troops waved at journalists and one soldier shouted to a photographer: "Come with us, beauty, we're going to Tbilisi!" But the convoy turned north, left the highway about a hour's drive from the Georgian capital and started setting up camp.
To the west, Abkahzian separatist forces backed by Russian military might pushed out Georgian troops and even moved into Georgian territory, defiantly planting a flag.
"The border has been along this river for 1,000 years," separatist official Ruslan Kishmaria told AP on Wednesday. He said Georgia would have to accept the new border and taunted the retreating Georgian forces, saying they had received "American training in running away."
The developments came less than 12 hours after Georgia's president said he accepted a cease-fire plan brokered by France that called for both sides to retreat to their original positions. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that Russia was halting military action because Georgia had paid enough for its attack last Thursday on South Ossetia.
Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili said the Western response has been 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."
Saakashvili gambled on a surprise attack late Thursday to regain control over South Ossetia. Instead, Georgia — a former Soviet state and current U.S. ally that wants to join NATO — suffered a punishing beating from Russian tanks and aircraft that has left the country with even less control over territory than before.
About 50 Russian tanks entered Gori on Wednesday morning, according to a top Georgian official, Alexander Lomaia. The city of 50,000 sits on Georgia's only significant east-west road about 15 miles south of South Ossetia, a separatist province where much of the fighting has taken place.
Russia's deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn insisted Wednesday that no tanks were in Gori. He said Russians went into the city to implement the truce with local Georgian officials but could not find any.
A Russian government official who wasn't authorized to give his name said that Russian troops checked a Georgian military base near Gori and found a lot of abandoned weapons and ammunition. Russian troops moved to take the supplies to a safe place as part of effort to demilitarize the area and protect civilians.
Nogovitsyn also said sporadic clashes continued in South Ossetia where Georgian snipers fired sporadically on Russian troops who returned fire. "We must respond to provocations," he said.
Russia has handed out passports to most in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and stationed peacekeepers in the both regions since the early 1990s. Georgia wants the Russian peacekeepers out, but Medvedev insisted Tuesday they would stay.
In the west, Georgian troops acknowledged Wednesday they had completely pulled out of a small section of Abkhazia which they had controlled — a development that leaves the entire area in the hands of the Russian-backed separatists.
"This is Abkhazian land," one separatist told an AP reporter over the Inguri River, saying they were laying claim to historical Abkhazian territory and that Georgian troops left without challenging them. The fighters had moved across a thin slice of land dotted with Georgian villages.
Georgia insisted its troops were driven out by Russian forces. At first, Russia said that separatists had done the job, not Russian forces. Nogovitsyn said Wednesday that Russian peacekeepers had disarmed Georgian troops in Kodori — 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.
One of two separatists areas trying to leave Georgia for Russia, Abkhazia lies close to the heart of many Russians. It's Black Sea coast was a favorite vacation spot for the Soviet elite, and the province is just down the coast from Sochi, the Russian resort that will host the 2014 Olympics.
Lomaia said Russian troops also still held the western town of Zugdidi near Abkhazia, controlling the region's main highway. An AP reporter saw a convoy of 13 Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers in Zugdidi's outskirts on Wednesday.
"There is no cease-fire," Saakashvili told CNN Wednesday. "We have a humanitarian disaster on our hands."
The first U.N. relief flight arrived in Georgia on Tuesday to help the tens of thousands uprooted by six days of fighting. Thousands of Georgian refugees have streamed into Tbilisi, the capital, or the western Black Sea coast while thousands more South Ossetian refugees headed north to Russia. Those left behind in devastated regions of Georgia cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered nearly deserted cities.
Saakashvili said Russia had more sinister aims than to gain control of the two disputed provinces.
"Georgia is the first test case," he said. "It was chosen first because it was a very successful democracy. We had the highest economic growth rate here, we have freedom of press, civil society."
At a rally Tuesday, Saakashvili was joined by the leaders of five former Soviet bloc states — Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine — who also spoke out against Russian domination.
"Our neighbor thinks it can fight us. We are telling it no," said Polish President Lech Kaczynski.
Russia accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in South Ossetia. The claim couldn't be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died.
Georgia said Wednesday that 175 Georgians had died in five days of air and ground attacks that left homes in smoldering ruins, including some killed Tuesday in a Russian bombing raid of Gori just hours before Medvedev declared fighting halted.
An AP reporter also saw heavy damage from a raid Tuesday in a Georgian village near Gori. Two men and a woman in Ruisi were killed and another five were wounded.
"I always hide in the basement," said one villager, the 70-year old Vakhtang Chkhekvadze as he pulled off a window frame blasted by an explosion. "But this time the explosion came so abruptly, I don't remember what happened afterward."
The Russia-Georgia dispute also reached the international courts, with the Georgian security council saying it had sued Russia for alleged ethnic cleansing. For his part, Medvedev reiterated accusations that Georgia had committed "genocide" in trying to reclaim South Ossetia.
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 the Georgian beach volleyball team leader, Levan Akhtulediani. "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, its better to compete on the field rather than outside the field," he added.
Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia reported from Zugdidi, Georgia, and near the Kodori Gorge. Matti Friedman from outside Gori, Georgia; Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia. David Nowak in Tbilisi; Sergei Grits in Ruisi, Georgia; Douglas Birch in Tskhinvali, Georgia; Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov, Lynn Berry and Angela Charlton in Moscow; Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.