POTI, Georgia | Thousands of Georgians demanded that Russian troops leave the outskirts of this strategic Black Sea port on Saturday and took to the streets in protest, while a top Russian general said his country’s forces would keep patrolling the area.
The comments by deputy head of the general staff Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, reported by Russian news agencies, showed that despite protests from the United States, France and Britain, Russia was confident enough to occupy whatever part of Georgia it deemed necessary.
“Russian military: You are not a liberating military; you are an occupying force!” one man shouted at the Poti protest. Banners read “Say No to War” and “Russia, go home.”
On Friday, Russia said it had pulled back forces from Georgia in accordance with a cease-fire brokered by the European Union.
“There are very specific requirements for Russian withdrawal. Putting up permanent facilities and checkpoints are inconsistent with the agreement. We are in contact with the various parties to obtain clarification,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said he had pressed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a phone conversation Saturday to quickly remove Russian troops from an axis between the Georgian towns of Poti and Senaki.
Russia’s pullback on Friday came two weeks to the day after thousands of Russian soldiers roared into the former Soviet republic following an assault by Georgian forces on the separatist region of South Ossetia. The fighting left hundreds dead and nearly 160,000 people homeless.
On Saturday, residents of the strategic central city of Gori began returning. Chaotic crowds of people and cars were jammed outside the city as Georgian police tried to control the mass return by setting up makeshift checkpoints.
Those who were let through came back to find a city battered by bombs, suffering from food shortages and gripped by anguish.
Surman Kekashvili, 37, stayed in Gori, taking shelter in a basement after his apartment was destroyed by a Russian bomb. Several days ago, he tried to bury three relatives killed by the bomb, placing what body parts he could find in a shallow grave covered by a burnt log, a rock and a piece of scrap metal.
“I took only a foot and some of a torso. I could not get the other bodies out,” he said.
His next-door neighbor, Frosia Dzadiashvili, found most of her apartment destroyed, leaving only a room the size of a broom closet to stay in.
“I have nothing. My neighbors feed me if they have food to share,” the 70-year-old woman said.
The Russian tanks and troops are gone from Gori - but other Russian troops are just up the road at a new Russian checkpoint. On Saturday afternoon, several thousand protesters waving Georgian flags approached the Russian position on the outskirts of Gori. Some soldiers came out of their trenches, but there was no clash.