Russia takes more ground in Georgia despite pullback vow

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 18, 2008 

IGOETI, Georgia — Despite assurances that it would withdraw troops from Georgia starting Monday, the Russian military operated with impunity as its forces moved convoys in and out of the city of Gori and plowed through a police roadblock in this town some 25 miles northwest of Tbilisi, the capital.

In Washington, senior defense officials cited "troubling" intelligence that Russia had set up short-range ballistic missile launchers in South Ossetia. The SS-21 missiles have a range of 40 to 70 miles, meaning they can reach the capital from practically any part of South Ossetia, which Russian forces now occupy.

The officials, who refused to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject, also said there was no significant Russian movement out of Georgia.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday the United States and its allies will not allow Russia to gain a strategic victory in Georgia. She also warned Russia that it is playing a "very dangerous game" by resuming Cold War-era strategic bomber patrols off the Alaskan coast. Rice was en route to an emergency meeting of NATO on the Georgia crisis.

The United States, which has refused to send direct military aid to Georgia, continued providing what officials said were humanitarian supplies. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said three C-17's and one C-9 transport planes flew to Georgia Monday, and as of Tuesday, there will be a daily flight of a C-17 cargo plane.

The deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told reporters in Moscow Monday that Russian troops were being drawn back to the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which sits just on the Georgia-Russia border.

McClatchy journalists working in both the west and center of the country saw little to indicate that was happening. As has been the case throughout the 10-day conflict - which began with a Georgian military move into South Ossetia - Russian commanders seemed intent on showing they controlled the ground.

Russian forces dominated the country's vital road and rail arteries, held military bases they had seized from the Georgian army, and occupied Gori, a strategically important city and the birthplace of the late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Military convoys continued to move in and out of Gori all afternoon, including tanks and an anti-aircraft gun. The day before, dozens of Russian supply trucks were seen driving from the direction of South Ossetia into the city.

The scene at Igoeti made plain the Russian eagerness to demonstrate its military prowess.

A Russian army officer approached a Georgian police checkpoint leading off the main road and demanded that the Georgians clear the way.

"You have five minutes to move your cars," he told the Georgian policeman. And then it was three minutes. The Georgian, addressing the Russian as "Mr. Colonel," pleaded: "I have an order, I cannot move my cars."

A few minutes later, the Russian waved his hand, and an armored fighting vehicle plowed through the roadblock of Georgian police cars, its tracks crushing into their sides.

Russian armor positions were parked alongside the road between Gori and Igoeti, with some soldiers lounging on their vehicles and others manning machine guns. The young men in dirty uniforms did not look tense; Russian flags flapped on top some of their trucks, deep in the heart of Georgia.

On the outskirts of Igoeti, a Russian soldier shrugged when asked if he was withdrawing anytime soon, saying: "We'll probably be here tomorrow."

A Russian soldier standing near the entrance of Gori said that, "When we are finished, we will drink some Georgian wine."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev again charged Monday that Georgia had provoked the clash 10 days ago by sending forces into South Ossetia, a region in North Georgia that Tbilisi wants to control. "We shall do our best to not let this crime go unpunished," state newswires quoted Medvedev as saying.

He said those who attack Russian citizens in the future will "face a crushing response." He omitted to mention that Russia has given Russian passports to many residents of South Ossetia, and to residents in its fellow rebel province in the west, Abkhazia.

Georgian politicians maintain that the Russian presence has little to do with the plight of the South Ossetians and is an attempt to cut off Georgia's close relations with the west. Georgia has applied for membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and wants to join the Europe Union as well.

"The goal of the attack was to undermine Georgia's independence," Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Monday. The Russian foreign ministry poured scorn on Saakashvili. "For reasons that any sensible persons will understand, we do not regard Mikhail Saakashvili as a negotiating partner," it said in a statement.

In western Georgia, along the second flank of the Russian offensive, there was no evidence of a Russian pullback by mid-afternoon. As they had the day before, Russian tanks occupied the regional police compound in and around Zugdidi, near the breakaway region of Abkhazia. In the morning, a convoy of 12 Russian military vehicles, including three tanks, rolled south toward the key Black Sea port of Poti.

Few civilian cars moved along the 30-mile stretch of road connecting Poti and Zugdidi. And beyond Zugdidi, in the villages closest to the edge of Abkhazia, there were almost no vehicles at all.

Around midday, at the last checkpoint before Abkhazia, a taxi driver waited in vain for clients crossing the border into Georgian-controlled territory. Kuladi Todua, the driver, said the only vehicles that crossed through that day were Russian military trucks.

(Lasseter reported from Igoeti and Bengali reported from Zugdidi. Nancy A. Youssef in Washington and Jonathan P. Landay in Brussels contributed.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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