OUTSIDE GORI, Georgia – Russian troops and paramilitaries rolled into the strategic Georgian city of Gori on Wednesday, apparently violating a truce designed to end the conflict that has uprooted tens of thousands and scarred the Georgian landscape.
In Washington, President Bush said the United States planned a massive humanitarian effort involving American ships and aircraft, includiung a C-17 military cargo plane loaded with supplies that landed on Wednesday.
He said Russia must ensure that “all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, roads and airports,” remain open to let deliveries and civilians through.
Georgian officials said Gori, a central hub on Georgia’s main east-west highway, was looted and bombed by the Russians before they left later in the day and camped nearby.
Moscow denied the accusations, but it appeared to be on a technicality: a BBC reporter in Gori reported that Russians tanks were in the streets as their South Ossetian separatist allies seized Georgian cars, looted Georgian homes and then set some homes ablaze.
“Russia has treacherously broken its word,” Georgia’s Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said Wednesday in Tbilisi, the capital.
An AP reporter saw dozens of trucks and armored vehicles leaving Gori, roaring southeast. Soldiers waved at journalists and one soldier jokingly shouted to a photographer: “Come with us, beauty, we’re going to Tbilisi!”
But the convoy turned north and left the highway about an hour’s drive from the Georgian capital, and set up camp a mile off the road. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russian troops were near Gori to secure weapons left behind by the Georgians.
To the west, Russian-backed Abkhazian separatists pushed Georgian troops out of Abkhazia and even moved into Georgian territory itself, defiantly planting a flag over the Inguri River and laughing that retreating Georgians had received “American training in running away.”
The developments came less than 12 hours after Georgia’s president said he accepted a cease-fire plan brokered by France. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that Russia was halting military action because Georgia had paid enough for its attack last Thursday on South Ossetia.
Bush said he was skeptical that Moscow was honoring the cease-fire.
“To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis,” Bush said.
The EU peace plan calls for both sides to retreat to the positions they held prior to the outbreak of fighting late Thursday. That phrasing apparently would allow Georgian forces to return to the positions they held in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and clearly obliges Russia to leave all parts of Georgia except South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili criticized Western nations for failing to help Georgia, a U.S. ally that has been seeking NATO membership.
“I feel that they are partly to blame,” he said Wednesday. “Not only those who commit atrocities are responsible … but so are those who fail to react. In a way, Russians are fighting a proxy war with the West through us.”
Russian at first denied that tanks were even in Gori but video footage proved otherwise.
About 50 Russian tanks entered Gori in the morning, according to Lomaia. The city of 50,000 lies 15 miles south of South Ossetia, where much of the fighting has taken place.
Some of the Russian units that later left to camp outside the city were camouflaged with foliage. The convoy was mainly support vehicles, including ambulances, although there were a few heavy cannons. There were about 100 combat troops and another 100 medics, drivers and other support personnel.
About six miles away from the camp, about 80 well-equipped Georgian soldiers were forming what appeared to be a new frontline, armed with pistols, shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and Kalashnikovs.
Sporadic clashes continued in South Ossetia where Russians responded to Georgian snipers.
Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia has handed out passports to most in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and stationed peacekeepers in both regions since the early 1990s. Georgia wants the Russian peacekeepers out, but Medvedev has insisted they stay.
Russia’s Lavrov lashed back after Bush’s comments Wednesday, calling Georgia’s leadership “a special project of the United States. And we understand that the United States is worried about its project.”
He was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that at some point, the United States will have to choose: “either support for a virtual project, or real partnership on issues that really demand collective action,” referring to U.S. cooperation with Russia in the U.N. Security Council on Iran and other world tension spots.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s security chief also said Russian forces targeted three Georgian Coast Guard boats in the Black Sea port of Poti, and Georgian television showed boats ablaze in the harbor.
Bush expressed concern that Russian forces have entered and taken positions in Poti, that Russian armored vehicles are blocking access to that port, and that Russia is blowing up Georgian vessels.
Lavrov denied that Russian troops were anywhere near the city.
In the west, Georgian troops acknowledged Wednesday they had completely pulled out of a small section of Abkhazia they had controlled.
“This is Abkhazian land,” one separatist told an AP reporter over the Inguri River, saying they were laying claim to historical Abkhazian territory.
The fighters had moved across a thin slice of land dotted with Georgian villages.
“The border has been along this river for 1,000 years,” separatist official Ruslan Kishmaria told the AP on Wednesday. He said Georgia would have to accept the new border.
Nogovitsyn admitted Wednesday that Russian peacekeepers had disarmed Georgian troops in Kodori — the same peacekeepers that Georgia wants withdrawn.
Abkhazia lies close to the heart of many Russians. Its Black Sea coast was a favorite vacation spot in Soviet times and the province is just down the coast from Sochi, the Russian resort that will host the 2014 Olympics.
For several days, Russian troops held the western town of Zugdidi near Abkhazia, controlling the region’s main highway. An AP reporter saw a convoy of 13 Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers in Zugdidi’s outskirts Wednesday. Later in the day, Georgian officials said the Russians pulled out of Zugdidi.
“They just don’t want freedom, and that’s why they want to stamp on Georgia and destroy it,” he declared to thousands at a jam-packed square in Tbilisi.
Leaders of five former Soviet bloc states — Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine — also appeared at the rally and spoke out against Russian domination.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree Wednesday saying that Russian navy ships deployed to the Georgian coast will need authorization to return to the navy base Russia leases from Ukraine.
The World Food Program sent 34 tons of high-energy biscuits Wednesday help the tens of thousands uprooted by the fighting.
Russia has accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in South Ossetia. The claim couldn’t be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died.
Georgia says at least 175 Georgians have died in Russian air and ground attacks.
The Russia-Georgia dispute also reached the international courts, with the Georgian security council saying it had sued Russia for alleged ethnic cleansing.
The rights group Human Rights Watch said Wednesday it has witnessed South Ossetian fighters looting ethnic Georgians’ houses and has recorded multiple accounts of Georgian militias intimidating ethnic Ossetians. The report was important independent confirmation of the claims by each side in the Russia-Georgia conflict.
At the Beijing Olympics, Georgian women rallied Wednesday to beat their Russian counterparts in beach volleyball, the first head-to-head clash of the two nations.
“Russia and Georgia are actually friends. People are friends,” said the Georgian beach volleyball team leader, Levan Akhtulediani. “But you know, it’s not, in the 21st century, to bomb a neighbor country, it’s not a good idea.”
“I say once again, its better to compete on the field rather than outside the field,” he added.