Friday, August 15, 2008

GORI, Georgia (AP) – Russian troops on Friday allowed some humanitarian supplies into the city of Gori but continued their blockade of the strategically located city, raising doubts about Russia‘s intentions in the war-battered country.

A flurry of international diplomacy, meanwhile, was set in motion Friday to clear the way for a Russian withdrawal.

Gori is on the country’s main east-west highway about 45 miles west of the capital, Tbilisi. By holding it, Russian forces effectively cut Georgia in half.

Related story: JON WARD/Chill falls on U.S.-Moscow relations

What happens in Gori is key to when – or if – Russia will honor the terms of a cease-fire that calls for both sides to pull their forces back to the positions they held before fighting broke out last week in the separatist region of South Ossetia.

Russian military vehicles were blocking the eastern road into the city on Friday, although they allowed in one Georgia bus filled with loaves of bread.

“It’s quiet there, but now there are problems with food,” said Alexander Lomaia, the head of Georgia’s national security council. He said he was able to tour the city during the night.

Russian forces also are in several other cities deep in Georgia, including the Black Sea port city of Poti, officials say. But Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Friday that there are no Russian troops in the city of Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, despite reports they were headed in that direction overnight.

Uncertainty about Russia’s intentions and back-and-forth charges has clouded the conflict days after Russia and Georgia signaled acceptance of a French-brokered cease-fire, and a week after Georgia’s crackdown on the two provinces drew a Russian military response.

Diplomats focused on finalizing the fragile truce between the two nations and clearing the way for Russian withdrawal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Georgia Friday to press President Mikhail Saakashvili to sign the deal. It would require major Georgian concessions, but Rice said the deal protects Georgia’s interests.

The plan calls for the immediate withdrawal of Russian combat troops from Georgia, but allows Russian peacekeepers who were in South Ossetia violence erupted of violence to remain and take a greater role there.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was traveling to Russia to meet President Dmitry Medvedev with plans to discuss the war.

Amid the intense diplomatic activity, tensions increased between Moscow and Washington after the U.S. and Poland struck a deal Thursday to install a missile defense facility in the ex-communist state.

Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Friday the agreement exposes Poland to attack, possibly by nuclear weapons, the Interfax news agency reported.

The United States says its missile defense system is aimed at blocking attacks by rogue nations. Moscow, however, feels it is aimed at Russia’s missile force.

In a report released Friday, Human Rights Watch said it has collected evidence of Russian warplanes using cluster bomb against civilian areas in Georgia. The international rights group urged Russia to stop using the weapons, which more than 100 nations have agreed to outlaw.

The group said Russian military aircraft killed at least 11 civilians and injured dozens in the town of Gori and the village of Ruisi. Russia’s Defense Ministry denied the claim, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, citing an unnamed official who complained that the organization gathered the information from biased witnesses.

Georgian officials accused Russia of sending a column of tanks and other armored vehicles toward Kutaisi, the second-largest city in Georgia, then said the convey stopped about 35 miles out.

“We have no idea what they’re doing there, why the movement, where they’re going,” Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said in a telephone briefing. “One explanation could be they are trying to rattle the civilian population.”

The U.S. said a move toward Kutaisi would be a matter of great concern, but two defense officials told The Associated Press the Pentagon did not detect any major movement by Russia troops or tanks. There was no immediate response from Russia.

“I think the world should think very carefully about what is going on here,” Saakashvili said. “We need to stop everything that can be stopped now.”

The Russian president met in the Kremlin with the leaders of the provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a clear sign Moscow could absorb the regions even though the territory is internationally recognized as being within Georgia’s borders. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a blunt message to Georgia and the world that appeared to challenge President Bush’s demand a day earlier that Russia must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.

“One can forget about any talk about Georgia’s territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state.”

The White House said Thursday that the U.S. position was unchanged and dismissed Lavrov’s remark as bluster. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Russia was in danger of hurting relations with the U.S. “for years to come” but said he did not see “any prospect” for the use of American military force in Georgia.

As the military and diplomatic battles played out, relief planes swooped into Tbilisi with tons of supplies for the estimated 100,000 people uprooted by the fighting.

“We’re in a difficult situation, but our government is helping us,” said Zhozhona Gogidze, a displaced person living at a camp on the outskirts of Tbilisi. “You know I am very ashamed, we don’t have a kopeck left and I’m so hungry.”

U.S. officials said their two planes carried cots, blankets, medicine and surgical supplies – but the Russians insinuated that the United States, a Georgia ally, might have sent in military aid as well. U.S. officials rejected the claim.

Even as the relief rolled in, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the fighting and lawlessness was keeping it from reaching large parts of Georgia. In some places, relief officials were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees.

Correspondents Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili and Matti Friedman in Tbilisi, Georgia; Mansur Mirovalev in Tskhinvali, Georgia; Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow; Alexander Higgins in Geneva; Carley Petesch in New York; Matthew Lee traveling with Rice; and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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