By Tara Bahrampour and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 14, 2008
OUTSIDE GORI, Georgia, Aug. 13 -- A day after Russia agreed to stop its offensive and pull its troops out of Georgian territory, Russian forces took over the frontline Georgian city of Gori on Wednesday, seized munitions at Georgian military bases and set up positions along the country's main east-west highway. Paramilitary fighters accompanying the troops looted homes and stole cars, witnesses said.
The actions far inside undisputed Georgian territory underlined the uncertainties of efforts to end the war and drew a sharp rebuke from President Bush. "Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis," he said at the White House, announcing that U.S. military planes and ships would begin ferrying humanitarian aid into the beleaguered country.
His move drew immediate praise from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been pleading for greater support from sympathetic countries. "This is an important signal the U.S. will keep Georgian airport and seaports open," Saakashvili told foreign reporters. "The first plane landed and that's a turning point. . . . This is an operation led by the Pentagon."
Russia denied many claims of violations of the cease-fire pledge. But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged the presence of Russian soldiers outside Gori and in the western city of Senaki, the site of another Georgian military base. "We have never concealed this," he said. "They are there to neutralize a huge arsenal of arms and military hardware which they found there totally abandoned. It was necessary to neutralize them in order not to create a threat for civilians." He promised that reports of looting would be investigated.
In foreign capitals, international civilian aid agencies mobilized to assist tens of thousands of people displaced by the attacks of both sides in the conflict. In Brussels, European foreign ministers met to try to build momentum behind a peace process that was put in motion by France, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Russian tanks and troops, accompanied by paramilitary fighters from South Ossetia, the breakaway region of Georgia that is the focus of the current conflict, moved into Gori on Wednesday morning. Statements by Georgian officials that the Ossetians were looting the city were supported by Western reporters who witnessed homes being ransacked, cars being seized and buildings being set on fire. Black smoke billowed over part of the city Wednesday afternoon.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said its researchers witnessed the looting and burning of homes in ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia, which is now under Russian control. Tensions between ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians are at the heart of the war; South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s, but some Georgians have continued to live there.
"Numerous houses in the villages of Kekhvi, Nizhnie Achaveti, Verkhnie Achaveti and Tamarasheni had been burnt down over the last day," the group reported, saying its researchers "saw the smoldering remnants of the houses and household items. The villages were virtually deserted, with the exception of a few elderly and incapacitated people who stayed behind either because they were unable to flee or because they were trying to save their belongings and cattle."
Diplomats in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, said they were pressing Russia to rein in South Ossetian militias. "When we challenged them on this, the Russians told us that they don't control everything yet," a Western diplomat said.
After the Russian entry into Gori, a column of approximately 100 Russian vehicles rumbled down the highway toward Tbilisi, setting off a new round of alarms among Georgians that the Russians planned to seize it. Soldiers in the convoy waved at reporters and shouted jokingly that they were headed for Tbilisi, before turning north off the road and setting up an encampment and series of checkpoints. Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers continued to move around the area Wednesday night.
Vyachislav Borisov, a Russian major general at one checkpoint, said Russian forces may remain in the area for another 48 hours. "Everything is calm," he said. "On the 15th of August we leave this place."
"They are trying to strangle the country," said Matthew Bryza, the U.S. special envoy to the region, noting that a major transit route has been effectively shut down.
Georgian troops set up positions about six miles from the Russian force, but there were no clashes.
Bush accused Russian troops of also moving into the Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea near a second separatist region, Abkhazia. The Russians blew up Georgian vessels there, Bush said. News photos showed a Georgian gunboat on fire in the harbor and a second resting deep in the water.
Lavrov said there were no Russian forces in Poti.
After South Ossetia broke away by force from Georgia in the 1990s, the enclave forged close ties with Russia. Last week, new open warfare erupted, with Georgian forces seizing South Ossetia's capital, only to be driven out by attacking Russians.
On Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy secured Russian and Georgian support for a plan that calls for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian and Georgian forces to the positions they held before the conflict that began last week.
Georgian officials have said they were responding to a Russian incursion into South Ossetia; Russian officials said their forces entered the breakaway province only after Georgia began a rocket barrage that caused massive civilian deaths and extensive damage in Tskhinvali, the region's capital. Most residents of the small city, which had a population of approximately 10,000, hold Russian citizenship.
Georgian officials also said Wednesday that separatist fighters in Abkhazia had pushed all Georgian forces from the one area controlled by the Tbilisi government. Russian forces pulled out of the Georgian town of Zugdidi near the frontier with Abkhazia, but Georgian officials said the area was looted before the withdrawal.