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Russian Troops Remain, But With Lighter Presence

By Jonathan Finer and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 21, 2008

GORI, Georgia, Aug. 21 -- Russian troops remained in Gori early this morning, despite movements yesterday that seemed to indicate they would leave. But their presence seemed lighter than it had since the occupation began.

Residents said the troops closed a checkpoint in the city yesterday only to reopen it at night. Another checkpoint in the city re mained open, as did four more going into and out of the city. But a small military base the Russians occupied was locked with no sign of troops, and a larger base had fewer Russian vehicles around it than before.

"I never believed it," said Zviad Sabashvili, 34, of the promised pullout. "They have it in their mind to stay, but they should leave."

A Russian soldier who wouldn't give his name said troops had been withdrawing equipment all night. Residents said that they had heard the sound of vehicles moving during the night, and also of gunshots, but they did not go out to investigate.

There were also small signs of civic life. People in orange suits swept the main square, skirting two Russian jeeps parked there. Garbage trucks emptied dumpsters. A food market that had been closed reopened.

Meanwhile, government officials said Russian troops were digging trenches around the Black Sea port city of Poti, where a shipment of U.S. humanitarian aid is expected within days.

A Reuters news service journalist on the border between Russia and South Ossetia on Wednesday reported seeing about 40 Russian trucks and captured Georgian tanks and armored personnel carriers heading into the tunnel that leads to Russia.

Aid workers have had varying degrees of success reaching villages in the area, and some are now focusing their deliveries on villages south of Gori that are not under Russian occupation but have absorbed a large number of displaced people.

A U.N. security team has reported seeing land mines along some of the roads around Gori, and aid workers are being put on alert, said Tom Vincent, country director for Save the Children. "I'm terrified that as soon as there's any movement whatsoever [of Russians out of the area] there's going to be a mass movement of NGOs, IDPs, and journalists, and if there are land mines, people are going to get killed."

Some Gori residents have started returning from local villages. However, the Georgian government said Wednesday that Ossetian troops have occupied Akhalgori, a town north of Gori that is inside the border of South Ossetia but was controlled by the Georgian government until the current conflict.

"They are putting in more and more troops, and they are distributing Russian passports," said Shota Utiashvili, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

In some cases, Georgians know the Russians are nearby but are too scared to go out to see what they are doing. Marina Kakhiashvili, 48, said she heard from her husband Wednesday by telephone for the first time since she left him behind 10 days ago to flee Meghvrekisi, a village in South Ossetia.

"He heard explosions today," she said, sitting in a Tbilisi school that was being used as a refugee center. Kakhiashvili said her husband had stayed behind with 20 other men to guard the village. "They are afraid to go out and have a look."

In Tbilisi, as U.S. aid continued to come in by air, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) arrived, two days after Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had visited. Biden returned from his trip saying that the Russian invasion of Georgia "may be one of the most significant events to occur in Europe since the end of communism."

Bahrampour reported from Tbilisi.

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