U.S. military ship avoids tense Georgian port

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 27, 2008 

WORLD NEWS GEORGIA-PORT 1 MCT

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas arrives in Batumi, Georgia, to deliver humanitarian aid to victims of the Russia-Georgia conflict, Wednesday, August 27, 2008.

SHASHANK BENGALI — Shashank Bengali / MCT

BATUMI, Georgia — The United States scuttled its plan to sail humanitarian aid into Georgia's main seaport Wednesday as Russia denounced the deployment and sent a naval task force into the waters off nearby Abkhazia.

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter steered its humanitarian cargo instead to Batumi, 50 miles to the south, avoiding a potential confrontation with Moscow in the increasingly tense Black Sea.

In what would have been a strong show of support to an embattled ally, the U.S. military had intended to send the cutter Dallas to Poti, Georgia's main commercial port, escorted by the USS McFaul, a destroyer. Poti is under Georgian control, but Russian forces operate two checkpoints just outside the town, which sits on the Black Sea 15 miles south of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia.

Instead, it was Russia that moved to assert its authority by deploying a naval task force armed with anti-ship and antiaircraft missiles into the waters off Abkhazia, which it occupies, the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported Wednesday. The agency called it a "peace and stability" mission.

Hours before the Russian announcement, U.S. officials decided to reroute the Dallas to Batumi, where the McFaul anchored Sunday with a small cargo of aid.

Even before crews began to offload the Dallas' modest cargo — 38 tons of bottled water, baby food, soap and other supplies — conflicting accounts emerged of who decided to redirect the vessel Tuesday night and why.

A U.S. official in Georgia said that the decision was made "at the highest levels of the Pentagon" but wouldn't elaborate. The official requested anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject.

In Washington, however, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that a U.S. military assessment team in Georgia had made the decision. The team, he said, determined that the infrastructure and transportation capabilities in Batumi were familiar and in better condition than those in Poti.

"Batumi was used because it was the military assessment that it was the best port for the expeditious delivery of the relief supplies," Whitman said.

It was unclear whether U.S. officials knew in advance of Russia's naval deployment. Amid the contradictory accounts, it was impossible to determine whether U.S. officials had blinked in the face of Russia's aggressive posture or opted on their own for a more restrained course.

As late as Tuesday night, a U.S. disaster assistance team in Georgia was preparing to dispatch trucks to Poti to receive the cargo, while the U.S. Embassy was planning to send journalists by helicopter from the capital, Tbilisi, to witness the ship’s arrival.

Military officials aboard the Dallas said the Russian presence wasn't a deterrent.

"The question of safety didn't come up. We had all the cards on the table," said Navy Capt. John Moore, the commodore of the task force that includes the Dallas.

Georgian officials, however, acknowledged the sensitivity of sending the ship to Poti. Although the bulk of Russian forces withdrew from Georgia last week after two weeks of conflict, Russia has asserted a broad right to maintain troops far outside the conflict zone, in what may be a violation of a French-brokered cease-fire agreement.

Not including Abkhazia, which Russian and Abkhaz forces control, there are 11 Russian checkpoints in northwestern Georgia, including two on the outskirts of Poti, Western diplomats say. Three more are within 25 miles of Poti, near a main highway leading to Tbilisi.

Western diplomats say that seven of those checkpoints, including those in and around Poti, violate the cease-fire agreement. Russia has defended the checkpoints.

"Of course it is safer in Batumi," said Levan Varshalomidze, the governor of Georgia's Ajara region, which includes Batumi. "There are no Russians here."

Moscow has condemned the deployment of the Dallas and the McFaul — which brought 55 tons of relief supplies — as part of what it describes as a growing presence of NATO warships in the Black Sea. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. this week, Medvedev accused the U.S. military of sneaking weapons into Georgia aboard the ships, a charge that an American military spokesman called "ridiculous."

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, said Wednesday that delivering humanitarian aid using warships "is something that can hardly be explained."

"Let’s hope that we won't see any direct confrontation," Peskov said.

The Dallas has been deployed with the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet for two and a half months since it left Charleston, S.C., in late May, said Lt. Robert Wyman, a Coast Guard spokesman in Portsmouth, Va. Coast Guard vessels, he said, routinely are assigned to assist the Navy far from U.S. waters.

The U.S. Embassy's disaster assistance team said that the aid would travel by road to Tbilisi this week and would be dispatched later to the areas around the town of Gori and the separatist province of South Ossetia, where the worst damage of the two-week conflict occurred.

That marked a shift from earlier statements by U.S. officials that the aid coming by ship would remain in western Georgia. Members of the U.S. relief team said that the humanitarian needs in western Georgia weren't as severe as initially estimated.

(Jonathan S. Landay and Dave Montgomery contributed to this article from Washington.)

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