US navy arrives in Georgia, Russian troops stay
Monday, 25 August 2008

REUTERS, BATUMI, Georgia- A US navy warship arrived in a Georgia's main Black Sea port of Batumi on Sunday with humanitarian aid as Russia ignored Western demands to remove its remaining troops from Georgia's heartland.

Russia says the residual troops are peacekeepers needed to avert further bloodshed and to protect the people of Georgia's separatist, pro-Moscow provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia two days after Moscow said it had wrapped up its withdrawal.
 
In Batumi, 80 kilometers (55 miles) south of another port of Poti, where Russian troops are still present, the USS McFaul arrived with aid for the tens of thousands displaced by the conflict that erupted on August 7-8.
 
Two other US ships are due to follow the guided missile destroyer to the port. The US has already delivered some aid by military cargo plane but is now shipping in beds and food for the displaced.
 
Russia's Black Sea fleet flagship vessel, the Moskva, is no longer in the same area, after it returned to its base in Ukraine on Saturday, a Russian navy spokesman told Russian news agencies on Saturday.
 
The United States and Europe fear the Russian presence in Georgia will cement the country's ethnic partition, undermine the pro-Western government of President Mikheil Saakashvili and threaten vital energy pipelines criss-crossing the country.
 
A loud explosion, heard by a Reuters correspondent west of the town of Gori at the doorsteps of South Ossetia, highlighted persisting tensions.
 
A Georgian Interior ministry spokesman suggested a train carrying fuel exploded after running on a mine. But there was no independent confirmation to his account.
 
Particularly worrisome for Tbilisi and the West is a checkpoint set up at the port of Poti, which lies outside the security zone Russia says is covered by its peacekeeping mandate and is hundreds of kilometers from South Ossetia.
 
CHECKPOINTS
 
"Putting up permanent facilities and checkpoints are inconsistent with the (ceasefire) agreement," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
 
EU president France, which helped broker the ceasefire, on Saturday urged Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev to order Russian forces out of Poti.
 
French President Nicolas Sarkozy "insisted it was important that Russian troops present at the Poti/Senaki area should withdraw as soon as possible," a French statement said.
 
The Kremlin said Sarkozy had given a "positive assessment" of the Russian pullout.
 
Though not Georgia's busiest port for oil, Poti can load up to 100,000 barrels per day of oil products, which arrive by rail from Azerbaijan. Poti is also the gateway for merchandise moving to Georgia, other Caucasus republics and Central Asia.
 
"Why do they want to take control of Poti? ... Maybe they want to grab Poti from us. While we are still alive we will not allow them to stay here," said Roland Silagava, 60, at a Georgian protest rally at the Poti checkpoint on Saturday.
 
The 20 or so Russian soldiers, sporting peacekeeper badges, just smiled and said they did not expect to stay there long.
 
The conflict broke out when Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia. A Russian counter-offensive pushed into Georgia proper, crossing its East-West highway and nearing a Western-backed oil pipeline.
 
They also moved into Western Georgia from Abkhazia, another breakaway region on the Black Sea. Hundreds of people were killed, tens of thousands displaced and housing and infrastructure wrecked in the conflict.
 
Sarkozy's office said he and Medvedev on Saturday had agreed on the urgency of creating an international mechanism under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to replace Russian patrols in the buffer zone south of South Ossetia.
 
In a conflicting account, the Kremlin said replacing Russian peacekeepers was not discussed. Russia has earlier said South Ossetians and Abkhazians would only accept Russian peacekeepers.
 
Despite repeated demands for a complete Russian pullback to positions prior to the conflict the West lacks leverage over a resurgent Russia whose oil and gas it sorely needs.
 
A US trade official said Russia's actions could affect its membership of the Group of Eight industrialized nations and its bid to join the World Trade Organization.
 
"That is all at risk now," US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was quoted as saying by Germany's Der Spiegel weekly.
 
The US envoy to the Caucasus said Russia had inadvertently helped Georgia's bid for NATO membership with its actions. Moscow sees Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics as part of its legitimate sphere of influence and opposes them joining NATO.

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