U.S. destroyer arrives off Georgia, unloads aid

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 24, 2008 

POTI, Georgia — A U.S. Navy destroyer delivered 55 tons of humanitarian aid for war-weary Georgia on Sunday as residents staged a second day of protests against Russian forces still occupying the country.

The U.S.S. McFaul, the first of at least three U.S. ships bringing relief supplies to ally Georgia, anchored one mile off the Black Sea coast of the southwestern city of Batumi, where crews used barges to ferry ashore bottled water, non-perishable food, blankets, diapers, cooking utensils and other items.

Stephen Guise, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, said the ship would have preferred to dock at Georgia's dep-water port at Poti, but that the port had suffered too much damage during the war to accommodate the destroyer. Batumi's port is too shallow to accommodate the McFaul.

Guise said that contractors and aid agencies working with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is overseeing the effort, would carry the supplies by road to war-affected areas in western Georgia. U.S. military planes have already delivered $13 million in aid to Tbilisi, which is closer to the heaviest fighting of the two-week conflict.

At least two other ships were en route to Georgia carrying relief goods, Guise said. A Coast Guard cutter also is due to arrive within days.

The arrival of the ships comes after Turkey, which by treaty controls access to the Black Sea, turned down a Bush administration request. Turkey, however, had already granted the McFaul permission to enter the Black Sea for a training mission, and

Navy officials quickly loaded it with humanitarian supplies. On Friday, the Navy announced that the McFaul and the cutter Dallas had been dispatched from Italy.

Russian officials didn't respond immediately to the arrival of the U.S. vessel, but they've criticized humanitarian deliveries by other NATO countries, including Spain, Germany and Poland, as fueling tensions in the Black Sea. "I do not think that this will contribute to the stabilization of the situation in the region," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian general staff, said Saturday.

Nearly 130,000 Georgians were forced from their homes during two weeks of often heavy clashes between Russian and Georgian forces in the tiny former Soviet republic, according to United Nations estimates.

Russia withdrew most of its soldiers Friday under a cease-fire agreement but is building checkpoints around the pro-Moscow separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as in areas far from the conflict zones, sparking anger among many Georgians.

In western Georgia, residents continued to demonstrate against the presence of Russian troops and armored personnel carriers outside the "security zones" demarcated in the cease-fire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

On Saturday, protesters gathered near one of two checkpoints the Russians have established outside Poti. On Sunday, television images showed scores of protestors gathered near a Russian checkpoint in the northwestern town of Khobi, waving flags and banners that read, "Go home, Russians!"

Russian soldiers detained two Associated Press journalists who were filming at the checkpoint in Poti, the news agency reported. The reporters were "roughed up" and their cameras damaged.

One of the two checkpoints outside Poti is along a river that's used to transport goods to the interior of the country.

During the war, Russian airstrikes damaged the deep-water port, knocking out its radar system, and Russian soldiers reportedly looted the neighboring coast guard pier.

Guise, the U.S. Embassy spokesman, said that the McFaul, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, would have docked at Poti but for the damage.

"Batumi as a port is nowhere near as good as Poti," he said.

Elsewhere on Sunday, a fuel train exploded near the central town of Gori while traveling along the main east-west railway line, sending massive clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky. Georgian officials initially blamed the blast on a landmine planted in the Russian-controlled area, but Georgian media reports later said the cause was under investigation.

(Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this report.)

More from McClatchy:

Amid Georgians' tales of violence, death toll is unclear

Russia withdraws from some positions in Georgia

U.S. Olympic team picks Georgian to lead them in closing ceremony

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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