Tensions remain high in Georgia

 

Tension remain high in Georgia this evening, with Russian troops and armour moving around three towns inside the country and ignoring demands by Washington that Moscow respect its territorial integrity.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to ask Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili tomorrow to sign a French-negotiated ceasefire that contains some apparent concessions to Moscow but would lead to the withdrawal of Russian forces, according to officials.

The six-point ceasefire Rice will discuss with Mr Saakashvili provides for the withdrawal of all Russian forces, leaving behind only the peacekeeping troops who were in place in South Ossetia and Abkhazia before the start of the crisis, a senior US official said.

It would give the Russian peacekeepers a new but limited authority to patrol certain areas of Georgia until third-party peacekeepers and observers arrive. 

Meanwhile, Moscow also clashed with Georgia's ally Ukraine today over the movements of Russia's Black Sea fleet after Ukraine's president decreed Russian warships obtain permission before entering or leaving their base in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was concerned about the humanitarian situation, lawlessness and lack of access for aid workers in war-torn parts of Georgia.

"I am extremely concerned by the humanitarian impact of the recent conflict on the civilian population in Georgia, which has suffered loss of life and injury, significant damage to property and infrastructure."

"Large parts of the conflict-affected area, particularly South Ossetia and the Gori region, remain for the most part inaccessible to humanitarian organizations due to ongoing insecurity, lawlessness and other constraints," he said. 

The United States does not want a return of Cold War relations with Russia following Moscow's military action in Georgia, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said this afternoon. 

"That certainly is not our desire," Mr Gates told reporters. "We have been pretty restrained in this."

Mr Gates was responding to questions about the future of US-Russia relations after Moscow sent troops into Georgia and the United States dispatched military aircraft to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgians.

Mr Gates said the Russian military appeared to be pulling its forces in Georgia back toward the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

 arlier, US military planes began delivering aid to Georgia as Washington stepped up support for a shaky ceasefire with Russian troops around the breakaway region of South Ossetia. 

Russia said today it will soon pull out from Gori, a town 60km east of the capital Tbilisi, just outside South Ossetia and which contols the key road between eastern and western Georgia.

US president George W. Bush, who spoke with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili yesterday, ordered humanitarian supplies to be delivered to Tbilisi on US military aircraft.

Mr Bush said the US expected Russia to allow humanitarian supplies into Georgia and ensure that all lines of communication and transport remain open.

Speaking in Tbilisi, Mr Saakashvili said Mr Bush's pledge meant Georgian ports and airports would be taken under US military control - a claim swiftly denied by the Pentagon.

Two US C-17 military aircraft carrying supplies have arrived in Georgia. But Russia's General Staff said today it was concerned by the type of cargo the US was airlifting to Georgia.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to hold talks with French president Nicolas Sarkozy before heading to Tbilisi. Her trip comes six days into a conflict that has shifted from artillery, tank and gun battles at the weekend to increasingly sharp diplomatic and political exchanges out of Washington, Moscow and Tbilisi.

Last night, Mr Bush, flanked by Ms Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates in the Rose Garden, demanded Moscow end the crisis, abide by an agreed ceasefire and withdraw Russian troops sent into Georgia after fighting began last Thursday.

"The United States of America stands with the democratically-elected government of Georgia. We insist that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected," Mr Bush told reporters at the White House.

Moscow has denied violating a ceasefire and rejected claims its troops and armour had advanced on Tbilisi or looted Gori. 

Speaking in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - told by Ms Rice that Russian servicemen were failing to prevent looting by irregular militias in Gori - said such actions would not be tolerated.

"I said from the very beginning that if any such facts prove true, we will react in the most serious way...The peaceful population should be protected. We are investigating all these reports and will not allow any such actions," Mr Lavrov said.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has urged France, which is mediating in the conflict, to encourage Tbilisi to sign a binding agreement not to attack its separarist regions.

Human Rights Watch, a US-based organisation with staff in Georgia, said its onsite researchers had witnessed looting of ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia, the rebel province at the heart of the current conflict.

A top Russian general said overnight, Gori and the surrounding area will soon be handed over to Georgian forces.

"For another two days Russian troops will stay in the region to carry out procedures of handing over control functions to Georgian law-enforcement bodies after which they will leave," Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov told Russian news agencies.

"All buildings are in normal shape, the town is supplied with water and electricity," he added inviting Georgians who fled Gori to return to their homes.

 A Reuters reporter said over 100 Russian vehicles, including up to 40 tanks, are massed near the centre of Zugdidi, a major town in western Georgia. He said the convoy included weapons such as rocket propelled grenades and was carrying Russian flags.

Mr Lavrov said the US needed to choose between partnership with Moscow or the Georgian leadership, which he characterised as a "virtual project" of the Bush administration. 

Russia says 1,600 civilians died when Georgia attacked South Ossetia, though the figure has not been independently verified. Moscow says it lost 74 soldiers in the fighting, with 171 wounded and 19 missing.

Tbilisi puts deaths on its side at over 175, with hundreds injured. That figure does not include South Ossetia.

Moscow announced an emergency aid package for South Ossetia, with Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin pledging 10 billion roubles ($414 million) to rebuild the shattered region.

Reuters