US unloads aid to Georgia, Russians eye every move

As nearby Russian forces watched intently, a U.S. Navy ship unloaded 17 tons of humanitarian aid to a strategic Georgian port that was devastated in last month's war between Russia and Georgia.

A massive Georgian floating crane lifted about 40 pallets stacked with toilet paper, toothpaste, diapers, blankets and other aid off the deck of the USS Mount Whitney, the first Navy ship to travel to Poti since the war.

A tugboat then guided the crane to shore, where trucks waited to take the aid to the central city of Kutaisi, which is still sheltering thousands of displaced people from the fighting in August. Kutaisi is about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Poti.

Saturday's delivery completes a series of aid shipments that have demonstrated U.S. support for Georgia and angered Russia.

Russian troops were obviously determined to keep an eye on the American aid delivery.

A Russian warship trailed the Mount Whitney — _ the flagship of the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean fleet — across the Black Sea, U.S. officials said, and Russian military forces onshore — just 3 miles (nearly 5 kilometers) from the ship's anchorage — kept watch Saturday.

"They're clearly watching us very, very closely, and I think they'll be very happy when we leave," the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Owen Honors, told The Associated Press.

Honors said the Russian troop post, only 3 miles (nearly 5 kilometers) from Poti, has been very busy in the past day.

"There was quite a bit of activity when we arrived yesterday," he said.

The Kremlin has watched the arrival of the U.S. warships carrying aid to Georgia with deep suspicion. Russian officials say previous U.S. military assistance encouraged Georgia to launch the Aug. 7 offensive against its separatist province of South Ossetia, and allege the U.S. aid shipments could be a cover for weapons deliveries.

U.S. officials have dismissed those accusations.

At one Russian position near Poti, several light tanks and armored personnel carriers bearing Russian peacekeeping insignias could be seen Saturday behind a high earthen berm and razor-wire fence. An excavator was digging new holes nearby.

Soldiers refused to let an Associated Press reporter speak to the commander of the post, but knew what he planned to ask.

"Yes, we saw the ship. It's a very good ship," one Russian officer responded coyly. He refused to give his name or rank.

The continued presence of Russian troops in Poti has been a major point of friction between Russia and the West, which insists Moscow has failed to honor a deal to pull troops back to positions held before fighting broke out Aug. 7.

Georgia's economic development minister, Ekaterina Sharashidze, said the presence of the U.S. ship in Poti sent "a strong signal to Russia and the world that Georgia is a sovereign country and nobody else has the right to be here."

Capt. John Moore, the commander of the task force that has brought some 450 tons of aid to Georgia on three naval ships and numerous U.S. planes, said a Russian warship had shadowed the Mount Whitney since it entered the Black Sea earlier this week.

The Russian ship, the frigate Ladnyy, had kept 4,000 yards (meters) away and stayed back in international waters Friday after the U.S. ship crossed into Georgian waters 12 miles from Poti, he said.

The U.S. ship was due to leave Poti later Saturday and head back to the Mediterranean. The U.S. Embassy in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi said no further ship deliveries of U.S. aid were planned.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev repeated suggestions that the aid was just a guise to resupply Georgia with military equipment.

"Unfortunately, the situation is like this ... the rearming of the Georgian regime, including under the flag of humanitarian aid, is continuing," Medvedev told a meeting of regional governors Saturday.

"It's interesting how they would feel if we were now to send humanitarian aid using our navy to the countries of the Caribbean sea, which recently suffered from a destructive hurricane," he added.

[Source: The International Herald Tribune, Aboard the USS Mount Whitney, 06Sep08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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