Russia to build outposts in Georgian zone

A convoy of flatbed trucks carrying badly needed food aid to beleaguered Georgians rumbled through a Russian checkpoint on Wednesday, waved past by soldiers who showed no signs of moving to fulfill their president's promise of a pullback within two days.

A top Russian general, meanwhile, said Russia plans to construct nearly a score of checkpoints to be manned by hundreds of soldiers in the so-called "security zone" around the border with South Ossetia, the Russian-backed Georgian separatist region that was the flashpoint of fighting this month that brought Russian troops deep into Georgia.

The cease-fire that calls for both sides to pull back to their pre-fighting positions allows Russia to maintain troops in a zone extending 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) into Georgia along the South Ossetian border.

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian general staff, told a briefing Wednesday that Russia will build a double line of checkpoints totaling 18 in the zone, with about 270 soldiers manning the posts in the front line.

The plans clearly show Russia aims to completely solidify control of South Ossetia. The province, for now, technically remains a part of Georgia, but Russia has said it will accept whatever South Ossetia's leaders decide about their future status — which is almost certain to be either a declaration of independence or a request to be incorporated into Russia.

The Igoeti checkpoint that the aid trucks passed through, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the capital, Tbilisi, is one of the deepest penetrations made by Russian forces into Georgia after fighting broke out in South Ossetia nearly two weeks ago.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says his troops will complete their pullback moves by Friday, but few signs of movement have been seen other than the departure of a small portion of the troops who have held the strategic city of Gori, another 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Igoeti.

The Russian seizure of Gori and villages in the region has left thousands of people with scarce and uncertain food supplies. The nine flatbed trucks carrying aid from the World Food Program could bring them some small comfort for a few days.

The Russian forces in Georgia appear to be aiming to weaken Georgia's military before the pullout, through detentions and destruction.

On Tuesday, Russian forces drove out of the Black Sea port city of Poti in trucks and armored personnel carriers loaded with about 20 blindfolded and bound Georgian prisoners — identified by local officials as soldiers and police — and seized four U.S. Humvees. They reportedly were taken to a Russian-controlled military base nearby, and Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Wednesday they still were being held.

Nogovitsyn, the Russian general, indicated his forces may not return the U.S. vehicles, which had been waiting at Poti to be shipped home after being used in recent U.S.-Georgia exercises.

Asked about U.S. demands that Russia return seized weaponry to the Georgian military, he said "we don't intend to give up trophies."

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Tuesday that Russia was not only flouting its withdrawal commitment but that its forces were "not losing time" in damaging Georgia by destroying infrastructure.

Georgian television showed footage of a tense standoff at a military training base in northwestern Georgia, where Russian troops tried to enter but were turned away by Georgian police. There was no violence, but the report said the Russians threatened to return and destroy the base if they were not allowed in.

The two nations did exchange 20 prisoners of war — 15 Georgians and five Russians, according to the head of Georgia's Security Council — in an effort to reduce tensions.

On the diplomatic front, NATO foreign ministers suspended their formal contacts with Russia as punishment. Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said "there can be no business as usual with Russia under present circumstances."

But the NATO allies, bowing to pressure from European nations that depend heavily on Russia for energy, stopped short of more severe penalties being pushed by the United States.

The Russian Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, dismissed the impact of the emergency meeting in Brussels, Belgium: "The mountain gave birth to a mouse."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said NATO was trying to make a victim of Georgia's "criminal regime." Russia strongly opposes Georgia's desire for NATO membership.

Lavrov said Georgian troops needed to pull back to their permanent bases first. The U.N. Security Council also was holding emergency consultations on the conflict.

The White House made clear it expected Russia to move faster. "It didn't take them really three or four days to get into Georgia, and it really shouldn't take them three or four days to get out," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

[Source: Herald Tribune Europe, Igoeti, Geo, 20Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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