POTI, Georgia — Defying Russia, an American warship bringing humanitarian aid to Georgia was expected to arrive Wednesday in this nervous Black Sea port that's being watched over by Russian soldiers, Georgian officials said.
The move would put U.S. military assets within close range of Russian forces for the first time since the Georgian conflict began, potentially setting up a confrontation with Moscow, the dominant power in the Black Sea.
Officials in Poti, Georgia's main commercial port, were preparing for the arrival of up to two U.S. military ships on Wednesday morning, said Alan Middleton, CEO of the privately run Poti Sea Port. U.S. officials were flying in from the capital, Tbilisi, and arranging for trucks to travel to Poti to receive the humanitarian supplies. Middleton said.
The port is within sight of a Russian military installation that was established last week, manned by an unknown number of soldiers. Just outside Poti, near the road that relief trucks would likely travel to distribute the U.S. supplies, sits a smaller Russian checkpoint where Georgian residents staged a demonstration over the weekend.
Western countries have said that both installations are in violation of a French-brokered cease-fire agreement because they lie several miles outside a "security zone" surrounding the border of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia. Russian officials have defended the checkpoints.
A spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy, Cmdr. Scott Miller, said that the Coast Guard cutter Dallas was en route to Georgia but declined to say where it would anchor, citing security reasons.
The arrival of U.S. vessels was certain to anger Moscow. A senior Russian military official said Tuesday he was "bewildered" by the growing presence of NATO warships in the northeastern Black Sea. Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn told a press conference that nine NATO ships were in the region, including a U.S. vessel that arrived late Tuesday night, the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported.
It wasn't clear how Russia would respond. Russian warships have been spotted off the coast of Georgia and, earlier this week, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Nogovitsyn as saying that Russian forces in the Black Sea might carry out searches of cargo ships "with the goal of preventing diversions and provocations."
Officials in Poti said that no Georgia-bound ships had reported interference from the Russian vessels.
Coming to Poti would mark a change in American military posture since Sunday, when the U.S.S. McFaul naval destroyer, the first U.S. warship to bring relief goods to Georgia, anchored off the coast of Batumi, a smaller port 50 miles to the south and far from any Russian checkpoints.
At the time, U.S. officials said that the Poti port couldn't receive the McFaul because it had been too badly damaged by Russian airstrikes in the opening days of the conflict. But officials in Poti said that U.S. officials inspected the port on Monday and found the damage to be minimal.
Middleton, the port official, said that a Coast Guard cutter would arrive Wednesday and anchor offshore, likely escorted by the McFaul. The U.S. Navy said that the McFaul left Batumi Tuesday morning and was conducting "routine operations" off the Georgian coast.
The Dallas is carrying 38 tons of relief supplies, including bottled water, baby food, soap, paper towels and baby wipes, the Navy said. Crews in Batumi offloaded 55 tons of relief supplies from the McFaul but U.S. officials it would be several days before the aid was distributed.
Rebecca Gustafson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development's disaster response team in Georgia, said that the delay was due to a "fast-changing situation" and that teams were assessing where humanitarian needs were greatest.
President Bush pledged that Navy forces would deliver aid to ally Georgia. But despite the arrival of two warships in western Georgia — and a third, the U.S.S. Mount Whitney, expected later this month — Gustafson said that humanitarian needs weren't as severe in the west. Of the nearly 130,000 Georgians displaced by the fighting this month, the vast majority are from central Georgia, where the worst clashes occurred.
U.S. military planes have already flown in some $13 million in emergency aid to Tbilisi, the capital, which is closer to the hardest-hit areas. Gustafson said that some of the aid brought in by the McFaul would travel by road to those areas.
"I don't know that the needs (in western Georgia) are as great as the volume of what's coming off that ship," Gustafson said.