Russia: 'Forget' Georgian territorial integrity
By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press Writer 25 minutes ago
GORI, Georgia - Russia's foreign minister declared that the world "can forget about" Georgia's territorial integrity on Thursday and Georgian and Russian troops faced off at a checkpoint outside the key city of Gori, calling an already shaky cease-fire into question.
In Washington, an American official said Russia appears to be sabotaging airfields and other military infrastructure as its forces pull back. The U.S. official described eyewitnesses accounts for The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The official said the Russian strategy seems like a deliberate attempt to cripple the already battered Georgian military.
The United States poured aid into the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Thursday and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched emergency talks in France aimed at heading off a wider conflict.
The comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to come as a challenge to the United States, where President Bush has called for Russia to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia."
There were at least five explosions near Gori. It could not immediately be determined if the blasts were a renewal of fighting between Georgian and Russian forces, but they sounded similar to mortar shells and occurred after a tense confrontation between Russian and Georgian troops on the edge of the city.
The strategically located city is 15 miles south of South Ossetia, the Russian-backed separatist region where Russian and Georgian forces fought a five-day battle. Russian troops entered Gori on Wednesday, after the two sides signed the cease-fire that called for their forces to pull back to the positions they held before the fighting.
Georgia early Thursday said the Russians were leaving the city, but later alleged they were bringing in additional troops. In Washington, a Pentagon official said U.S. intelligence had assessed that the number of Russians in Gori was small — about 100 to 200 troops.
But the Russian presence in Gori, only 60 miles west of Tbilisi, was viewed as a demonstration of the vulnerability of the capital.
Russian deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn blamed the Georgians for Russia's decision to stay.
"The position of the Russia side is not proceed beyond the peacekeeping zone. But we have to respond to provocations," he said.
Georgian government officials who went into the city for the possible handover left unexpectedly around midday, followed by a checkpoint confrontation outside Gori which ended when Russian tanks sped toward the area and Georgian police quickly retreated.
A Russian general in Gori had said Wednesday it would take at least two days to leave the city. Lavrov said troops were evacuating Georgian weapons and ammunition from a military base there.
Some Georgian police said irregular fighters from South Ossetia had refused to leave Gori, where a BBC reporter saw them looting and burning Wednesday night.
Two planned U.S. aid flights arrived in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi late Wednesday and Thursday, carrying cots, blankets and medicine for refugees displaced by the fighting. The shipment arrived on a C-17 military plane, an illustration of the close U.S.-Georgia military cooperation that has angered Russia.
Besides the hundreds killed since hostilities broke out, the United Nations estimates 100,000 Georgians have been uprooted; Russia says some 30,000 residents of South Ossetia fled into the neighboring Russian province of North Ossetia.
Russian troops also appeared to be settling in elsewhere in Georgia outside the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," Lavrov told reporters.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry said Russian troops remained in Poti, a Black Sea port city with an oil terminal that is key to Georgia's fragile economic health.
An APTN crew in Poti saw one destroyed Georgian military boat, about 60 feet long, two Russian armored vehicles and two Russian transport trucks inside the port. They were blocked from moving closer by soldiers who identified themselves as Russian peacekeepers.
Earlier Thursday, on Poti's outskirts, the APTN crew followed a different convoy of Russian troops as they searched a forest for Georgian military equipment.
Another APTN camera crew saw Russian soldiers and military vehicles parked Thursday inside the Georgian government's elegant, heavily-gated residence in the western town of Zugdidi. Some of the soldiers wore blue peacekeeping helmets, others wore green camouflage helmets, all were heavily armed. The scene underlined how closely the soldiers Russia calls peacekeepers are allied with its military.
"The Russian troops are here. They are occupying," Ygor Gegenava, an elderly Zugdidi resident told the APTN crew. "We don't want them here. What we need is friendship and good relations with the Russian people."
Georgia, bordering the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
A steady, dejected trickle of Georgian refugees fled the front line in overloaded cars, trucks and tractor-pulled wagons, heading to Tbilisi on the road from Gori. One Soviet-era car carried eight people, including a mother and a baby in the front seat. The open back door of a small blue van revealed at least a dozen people crowded inside.
The Russian General Prosecutor's office on Thursday said it has formally opened a genocide probe into Georgian treatment of South Ossetians. For its part, Georgia this week filed a suit against Russia in the International Court of Justice, alleging murder, rape and mass expulsions in both provinces.
More homes in deserted ethnic Georgian villages were apparently set ablaze Wednesday, sending clouds of smoke over the foothills north of Tskhinvali, capital of breakaway South Ossetia.
One Russian colonel, who refused to give his name, blamed the fires on looters.
Those with ethnic Georgian backgrounds who have stayed behind — like 70-year-old retired teacher Vinera Chebataryeva — seem increasingly unwelcome in South Ossetia.
As she stood sobbing in her wrecked apartment near the center of Tskhinvali, Chebataryeva said a skirmish between Ossetian soldiers and a Georgian tank had gouged the two gaping shell holes in her wall, bashing in her piano and destroying her furniture.
Janna Kuzayeva, an ethnic Ossetian neighbor, claimed the Georgian tank fired the shell at Chebataryeva's apartment.
"We know for sure her brother spied for Georgians," said Kuzayeva. "We let her stay here, and now she's blaming everything on us."
North of Tskhinvali, a number of former Georgian communities have been abandoned in the last few days. "There isn't a single Georgian left in those villages," said Robert Kochi, a 45-year-old South Ossetian.
But he had little sympathy for his former Georgian neighbors. "They wanted to physically uproot us all," he said. "What other definition is there for genocide?"
Associated Press writers Misha Dzhindzhikhavili in Tbilisi; Mansur Mirovalev in Tskhinvali, Georgia; Jim Heintz in Moscow; and Anne Gearan, Matthew Lee and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.