By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia, Aug. 14 -- Georgia remained in a state of uncertainty Thursday as Russian troops retreated from and then returned to the city of Gori and spent much of the day destroying or carrying away captured Georgian military equipment. Elsewhere in the country, Russian tanks and trucks rolled along country roads toward unknown destinations, watched by local people.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Georgia could "forget about" ever regaining the two secessionist regions that are at the heart of the conflict. At the Kremlin, President Dmitry Medvedev warmly received the political leaders of the zones, which Georgia and the United States insist remain part of Georgia.
Two days ago, Medvedev said Russian troops had ceased hostilities and would withdraw. Since then, his troops have moved erratically, heading in one direction and then veering off or reversing course. Russian authorities have given contradictory accounts of how or when the troops might withdraw to Russia or the separatist areas.
"They want to paralyze the country as long as they can," said Georgian Deputy Minister of Defense Batu Kutalia, who was monitoring developments from Egoeti, a town eight miles east of Gori. "They are putting everything in a nonusable condition and taking what they want."
The two-day-old cease-fire appeared largely to be holding, despite scattered reports of shooting and car thefts by fighters from the separatist zones. A Georgian television journalist was slightly wounded on camera as she delivered a report in Gori.
In the central Georgian city, which straddles the country's main east-west highway, Russian troops began to move out Thursday in seeming compliance with the cease-fire agreement. Georgian police started to move in to take control of the city, but then the Russians returned.
Kutalia said the Russians still had 90 tanks in the city and were destroying a military base there, blowing up buildings, ripping out water and electricity lines and taking away armaments. The base had been built to technical standards of the NATO alliance, which Georgia wants to join, and could accommodate 3,500 soldiers.
Inside Gori, the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, Alexander Lomaia, spent a second day negotiating with Vyachislav Borisov, a Russian major general. "We've been trying to convince the general to let the police in," Lomaia said in a telephone interview. "Initially they agreed and then unexpectedly said no." Later, he said that the Russian general had promised that the police could return Friday.
Lomaia said that during their talks, Borisov had gotten a call that Georgian vehicles were approaching Gori. "They take that as a threat, and they said to either stop these cars or they will bomb them," Lomaia said.
He added that 180 Russian vehicles had left Gori on Thursday. He did not know if armaments and other equipment were being taken to Russia or to Tskhinvali, the capital of the disputed region of South Ossetia, a move that he said "would equip the separatist army in a pretty impressive way."
According to Temuri Yakobashvili, the Georgian minister in charge of attempts to bring the two zones back into the government's fold, Russian forces remained Thursday in the western cities of Poti, Zugdidi and Senaki. They have scuttled Georgian gunboats in Poti and destroyed a base in Senaki.
A photographer for the Reuters news agency took pictures a mile and a half outside Zugdidi of numerous Russian vehicles, soldiers sitting casually atop them. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said a Russian column was moving down the country's main east-west artery toward the city of Kutaisi, where they have never gone before.
The two separatist zones seized de facto independence by force of arms in the early 1990s. Last week the Georgian army stormed South Ossetia to try to take it back, but were quickly repelled by Russian forces that then advanced far into undisputed Georgian territory.
Reports from Sukhumi, capital of the other disputed region, Abkhazia, said residents were celebrating after Russian-backed separatists this week took Kodori Gorge, part of which was the only sliver of Abkhazia controlled by Georgia.
Kutalia said the death toll among Georgian service members was 160, with 300 still missing. Georgia has an army of 32,000. Approximately 100,000 people -- Georgians and South Ossetians -- have been displaced by the past week's fighting.
Two more air shipments of U.S. humanitarian aid arrived in Georgia. Some of the supplies were allowed into Gori, Lomaia said.
The Georgian capital, Tbilisi, was calmer Thursday as residents took food and clothing to shelters that had been set up in schools and other public buildings to accommodate the stream of ethnic Georgian refugees.
In an old printing house turned into a shelter, Spiridon Mamisashvili, 62, said he had stayed in his town, Eredwi, in South Ossetia to take care of his cattle. But on Wednesday, masked militia rounded up seven of his neighbors and shot them as Mamisashvili watched from a hiding place in his garden.
"They were telling us that they were not going to kill the old people, but now they are killing the old people, too," he said. After walking all night through a valley, he reached Gori on Thursday morning and from there found a ride to Tbilisi.
Shorena Lakhashvili, 28, said she had been in the shelter for four days, since retreating Georgian troops had warned her to leave her town in South Ossetia. She said her father was missing and mobile phone access to the region had been jammed.
Correspondent Peter Finn in Egoeti contributed to this report.