POTI, Georgia (AP) – Russian forces blocked the only land entrance to Georgia’s main port city on Thursday, a day before Russia promised to complete a troop pullout from its ex-Soviet neighbor.
Armored personnel carriers and troop trucks blocked the bridge to the Black Sea port city of Poti, and Russian forces excavated trenches and set up mortars facing the city. Another group of APCs and trucks were positioned in a nearby wooded area.
Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised that his forces would pull back by Friday, Russian troops appear to be digging in, raising concern about whether Moscow is aiming for a lengthy occupation of its small, pro-Western neighbor.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told The Associated Press that Russia was thinning out its presence in some occupied towns but was seizing other strategic spots. He called the Russian moves “some kind of deception game.”
“(The Russians) are making fun of the world,” he declared.
An EU-sponsored cease-fire says both Russian and Georgian forces must move back to positions they held before fighting broke out Aug. 7 in Georgia’s separatist republic of South Ossetia, which has close ties to Russia. The agreement also says Russian forces can work in a so-called “security zone” that extends more than four miles into Georgia from South Ossetia.
Poti is at least 95 miles west of the nearest point in South Ossetia.
Russian tanks, trucks and troops, meanwhile, continued to hold positions around the strategically key city of Gori and in Igoeti, about 30 miles west of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
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 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
On Wednesday, U.S. 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.
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. Later, Russia’s Interfax news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko as saying Moscow was reconsidering its cooperation with the military alliance.
South Ossetia is recognized internationally as part of Georgia, but Russia says the future of the province is up to provincial leaders. President Bush and other Western leaders have stressed that Georgia must retain its current borders.
In a sign Russia plans to solidify its 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, urged Russia on Wednesday to recognize its independence. Fighting flared in both regions before Georgia and Russia agreed to a cease-fire.
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.
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. He 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.
Some of the estimated 37,000 refugees in Russia said government aid has been slow in coming.
“I was hoping Russia would help me,” said Frosia Besayeva, 30, in Beslan, Russia, with her two small children. “But so far we haven’t seen anything except for promises.”
In the nearby town of Ardon, Galina Gabayeva, 36, said her family of four took in as many as 15 refugees from South Ossetia. She later had to send four of them elsewhere, because she couldn’t house so many people and there was no help from the government.
“We condemned ourselves to such immense suffering,” Gabayeva said bitterly. “We hoped for help, but there isn’t any.”
A U.S. official in Turkey said three U.S. military vessels were heading through Turkey’s Bosporus, a strait that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea, to deliver aid to Georgia. Two of the ships were leaving Crete on Thursday. He declined to be named because he was not authorized to give that information to media.
Since Aug. 19, the United States has delivered aid to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, on 20 flights.
Associated Press writers Mike Eckel in Igoeti, Georgia, Yuras Karmanau in Beslan, Russia, and C. Onur Ant in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.
Aug 21, 2008