Georgia accuses Russia of downing key bridge

Georgia accused Russian troops of blowing up a key railway bridge on Saturday after the United States had called on Moscow to pull its forces out of the country immediately.

In the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a ceasefire pact ending hostilities, the Kremlin said. Georgia had already signed the agreement.

A simmering conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted into war more than a week ago, when Georgia launched an assault to retake its separatist province of South Ossetia, prompting a huge counter-offensive from Moscow, which supports the rebels.

Russia's General Staff denied carrying out the bridge attack, declaring that hostilities that flared nine days ago around South Ossetia were, as far as it was concerned, over.

One end of the bridge, near the town of Kaspi, had collapsed into the river bank in a pile of rubble and twisted steel, pictures filmed by a Reuters television crew showed.

"We are now in peacetime. Why should we be blowing up bridges when our job is to restore ?" Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the General Staff, told a daily official briefing in Moscow. "This therefore can only be yet another completely unverified statement.'

Railway Communications Lost

In Sochi, Kremlin chief spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said: "The president informed participants of the (Russian National) Security Council meeting that he had just now signed the six-point plan (to end hostilities)."

But Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze suggested Russian military operations, which have seen troops fan out from the South Ossetia into the Georgian heartland, were far from over. He said Russian soldiers had blown up the bridge, west of the capital Tbilisi, early on Saturday afternoon.

"That bridge being gone effectively results in the country losing east-west railway communications. For how long I do not know," he told reporters.

A Reuters Television crew interviewed villagers, who spoke of men in military uniform arriving by jeep, uncoiling wires and detonating a device remotely. The blast blew out windows of nearby homes.

The villagers blamed Russian forces for the action but the identity of the attackers could not immediately be verified. Irregular militias, based in South Ossetia, have also been operating against Georgian targets in recent days.

France, which brokered the peace deal, said Medvedev had assured French President Nicolas Sarkozy late on Friday that Moscow would sign the pact and pull back its troops.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili signed the ceasefire on Friday after a five-hour meeting with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Russian Forces "Carry Off Equipment"

Russian Colonel-General Nogovitsyn said Georgian snipers were still shooting in South Ossetia and that Russian forces had engaged a "Georgian sabotage group" near the Roki tunnel, the main crossing point for Russian troops into Georgia.

Russian forces continued to move around in areas of Georgia far outside the separatist areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where they maintain peacekeeping forces.

In the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, witnesses said Russian troops had carried off crates and equipment in trucks and helicopters from the port and airport.

"They carried out everything they could take," a local resident, Tengiz Khukhia, told Reuters. "They loaded it onto the helicopters and took it straight away."

Rice, visiting Tbilisi on Friday to show support for close ally Saakashvili, criticized Moscow for its actions.

In a reference to August 1968, when a Soviet-led tank invasion crushed Czechoslovakia's fledgling reforms, Rice said: "Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once. This is no longer 1968."

The Kremlin has deployed warships, planes, tanks and troops against Georgia in the biggest Russian military operation outside its borders since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow says the United States has failed to appreciate that Saakashvili started the hostilities and that it had an obligation to defend Russian passport-holders in South Ossetia against Georgian attack.

After meeting Medvedev in Sochi on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Moscow's actions as disproportionate and said Russia must pull its troops back to the two separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

[Source: By Omer Berberoglu, Reuters, Georgia, 16Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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