Russia Vows Pullout as Troops Dig In

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 18, 2008

GORI, Georgia, Aug. 17 -- Russia pledged Sunday to begin removing its troops from Georgia on Monday, but the streets of this occupied city reflected a broadening, not a waning, of Russia's military incursion.

President Dmitry Medvedev vowed to "begin the withdrawal of the military contingent" starting Monday. Russian leaders have made contradictory and at times clearly false statements about their troops' plans and positions ever since the Georgia operation began. On Saturday, a top Russian general told reporters that his country had no troops in Gori.

During a reporter's 24-hour stay in the city this weekend, Russian soldiers roamed the streets in armored personnel carriers and waved Kalashnikov rifles to prevent entry to a captured Georgian military base that is now the Russian headquarters. Russian soldiers dug fortified positions for tanks along highways east and west of Gori and trucked in television and radio equipment to begin broadcasting in their own language.

"We have stopped firing -- be glad about that," a young Russian captain said when asked whether troops would soon withdraw.

Meanwhile, Gori's few remaining Georgians endured pat-downs and vehicle searches when moving around town. Some residents gave shelter to fellow Georgians who arrived from villages to the north with accounts of continuing ethnic violence there. At least 27 civilians have died here in scattered incidents of violence since the Russian troops arrived, medical officials said, including a doctor killed in front of a hospital by helicopter fire.

Other deaths are not yet recorded, such as those whose acrid smell still wafts from the rubble of some of the 10 or so buildings that were crumpled by Russian airstrikes in the western part of the city before the ground troops arrived.

The long-simmering conflict escalated 10 days ago. Georgian troops crossed into South Ossetia, a Georgian region that separatists have held for the past decade and a half. The Georgians were quickly repelled by Russian forces who then advanced out of South Ossetia to Gori and other undisputed parts of Georgia.

Most of Gori's remaining residents, an estimated 7,000 out of a population of more than 70,000, have settled into what one described as "a version of regular life." Looters no longer plague the residents at night. Few new ruins have been added.

Two women have taken refuge in a small garage behind their former apartment building, which had been struck by a rocket, killing a woman and her young son. "Luckily, I was in the stairway when the explosion hit, but they didn't make it," said Elena Zevekize, 76, who began to weep.

Over a late dinner of cheese, sliced meats and cherries picked directly through a kitchen window shattered during last week's shelling, the Gverdtsiteli family used carafes of souring wine to toast the dead on both sides, their Orthodox church's patriarchy and, at the urging of four guests (stranded journalists), their own hospitality. Over coffee, they passed around a jagged shard of rocket shrapnel that had landed in their yard.

While Gori has stabilized, residents of villages to the north, just outside the border of South Ossetia, report that ethnic attacks have continued there.

On Sunday, Badri Meliauri, 48, was brought to Gori's hospital with his wounded 70-year-old mother. He said Ossetian militiamen had killed his mother's father and uncle in their home in the village of Tkziavi. She said she had spent the past several days in a room with their bodies, which officials buried Sunday.

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