Russian forces on Wednesday built a sentry post just 30 miles from the Georgian capital, appearing to dig in to positions deep inside Georgia despite pledges to pull back to areas mandated by a cease-fire signed by both countries.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says his troops will complete their pullback by Friday, but few signs of movement have been seen other than the departure of a small contingent that have held the strategically key city of Gori.
A convoy of flatbed trucks carrying badly needed food aid to one of the areas most heavily hit by the fighting was waved through a checkpoint by Russian soldiers. But conditions throughout much of the country remained tense.
Russian soldiers were setting up camp Wednesday in at least three positions in west-central Georgia. Further east, soldiers were building a sentry post of timber on a hill outside Igoeti, 30 miles from Tbilisi and the closest point to the capital where Russian troops have maintained a significant presence.
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.
And at a military training school in the mountain town of Sachkhere, a Georgian sentry said he feared Russian forces will make good on their threat to return after a confrontation the day before.
The sentry, who gave his name only as Corporal Vasily, said 23 Russian tanks, APCS and heavy guns showed up at the base on Tuesday and demanded to be let in. The Georgians refused and the Russians left after a 30-minute standoff but vowed to return after blowing up facilities in the village of Osiauri, he said.
Georgia’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Russian soldiers destroyed military logistics facilities in Osiauri, but the claim could not immediately be confirmed.
“We’re trying not to provoke them; otherwise they’ll stay here for five to six months,” Vasily said. He said the school itself had no heavy weapons or other significant strategic value, unlike the military base raided by Russians at Senaki, “where they even took the windows off the buildings.”
Russia sent its tanks and troops into Georgia after Georgia launched a heavy artillery barrage Aug. 7 on the separatist, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia. Fighting also has flared in a second Georgian breakaway region, Abkhazia.
The short war has driven tensions between Russia and the West to some of their highest levels since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
A cease-fire signed by the presidents of Russia and Georgia calls for Russian forces to pull back to the positions they held before Aug. 7. The cease-fire allows Russia to maintain troops in a zone extending about 4 miles into Georgia along the South Ossetian border.
The Kremlin said Medvedev told French President Nicolas Sarkozy by phone Tuesday that Russian troops would withdraw from most of Georgia by Friday — some to Russia, others to South Ossetia and a surrounding “security zone” set in 1999.
The White House has made clear that it expects Russia to move faster.
“Both the size and pace of the withdrawal needs to increase, and needs to increase sooner rather than later,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. “I don’t think they need any more additional time.”
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 front-line posts. He said the security zone would be 25 miles from the strategically key city of Gori, but the city is significantly closer to the zone’s presumed boundaries than that.
South Ossetia 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.
Western leaders have stressed Georgia must retain its current borders.
A U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee delegation traveled to Georgia to show solidarity with its government and assess the situation after fierce fighting between Georgian and Russian troops.
“We’re not going to let this aggression stand. The world is behind you,” U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., told female refugees during a visit to a center for displaced people in the capital, Tbilisi.
“We can’t let a bully do this, because if they do it here, they’ll do it other places, and if we don’t stop it here we’ll have to stop it in a much more difficult way,” Lieberman added.
Lieberman and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham met with Georgian officials as well as with the ranking U.S. general on the ground. Graham, speaking to refugees alongside Lieberman, said that the Russians are “not going to prevent the American people from helping you.”
About 80,000 people displaced by Russian-Georgian fighting are in more than 600 centers in and around Tbilisi.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Jon Miller has ordered a U.S. military assessment team to draw up a response plan to provide for semi-permanent housing for about 20,000 people who have no homes to return to. He also wants such a housing plan to be capable of quick expansion to provide for the rest of the refugees if the Russians do not withdraw and people are unable to go home.
Zbigniew Probulski, a 55-year-old Pole who was helping aid workers at a former Soviet military hospital in downtown Tbilisi, said most people were concerned about ensuring they were prepared for the winter.
“All the infrastructure here is destroyed — there’s no heating for example and nobody knows what to expect in the coming months,” Probulski said.
Probulski, who was on a tourist trip to Georgia when the fighting broke out and came to Tbilisi to help out, said people also are desperately seeking information about their loved ones.
“They are really worried about their family members who are still in the war zone, and their homes,” he said.