Medvedev Backs Independence Bids

APRussian troops taking up positions around a grazing cow during a search operation near the Black Sea port of Poti, which came under Russian fire Thursday.
President Dmitry Medvedev signaled Thursday that he would support independence bids by Georgia's separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russian troops roamed in Georgia proper, prompting outcries that Moscow was violating a truce reached with Tbilisi this week.

"We will support any decisions made by the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ... and not only will we support them, but we will guarantee them both in the Caucasus and throughout the world," Medvedev told Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and his South Ossetian counterpart, Eduard Kokoity, in the Kremlin.

The two separatist leaders were in Moscow to sign a document outlining the principles for a settlement of the Russian-Georgian conflict.

Russian troops poured into South Ossetia last Friday, rebuffing an attempt by Georgia's military to reclaim South Ossetia by force. Having routed Georgian units in the separatist region, the troops then moved into Georgia proper, saying it needed to destroy Georgian military bases and positions near the towns of Gori and Senaki to protect South Ossetia from further attacks.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia have long sought to be recognized as independent states. Russia never objected to their bids but formally pledged to respect Georgia's territorial integrity.

This week's truce says nothing about Georgia's territorial integrity, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear Thursday that the issue was not open for discussion. "You can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the motion that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," Lavrov told reporters.

Lavrov later told Ekho Moskvy radio that mentioning Georgia's territorial integrity in any document connected to the settlement of the conflict would be regarded by South Ossetians and the Abkhaz as a "profound offense of human dignity."

U.S. White House spokesman Dana Perino told reporters Thursday that the administration of President George W. Bush considers such talk "bluster" and would ignore it.

With Russian forces firmly entrenched in its heartland, Georgia remained locked in a tense atmosphere, leading the government in Tbilisi to call for international intervention.

Lavrov said Russia would welcome foreign participation in peacekeeping in Georgia's separatist republics.

In Gori, the birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Georgian officials accused a contingent of Russian paratroopers of mining and looting the town instead of honoring an agreement to pull out and hand over authority to the Georgian police force.

Russian forces also continued to hold the western towns of Zugdidi, Senaki and Poti, but the situation there was more relaxed, local residents and the government in Tbilisi said.

The Russian commander in charge of forces in Gori, Vyacheslav Borisov, promised late Wednesday that his men would hand over power and leave by Friday. "We will go home tomorrow and the day after, but now we have to restore order," Borisov, a burly man in fatigues and a camouflage cap, told reporters at a checkpoint just outside the city limits.

The general said his troops were collecting weapons and military equipment left behind by the Georgian army when it retreated from South Ossetia after being overwhelmed by Russian troops last Friday. "They left everything, 1,000 American-made rifles, 40 armored personnel carriers and ammunition. This is highly dangerous to leave lying around," Borisov said. He added that his troops would guard what they found and then confiscate them.

But on Thursday, the Georgian Interior Ministry complained that Borisov's soldiers had reneged on their agreement to hand over control. "We had an agreement to send police forces into Gori today," ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said. "But when our men came, they were not let into town and were then sent away."

Dmitry Astakhov / AP
Medvedev meeting with Bagapsh and Kokoity in the Kremlin on Thursday.

The Russians explained that they needed more time, Utiashvili said.

Georgia's Foreign Ministry complained that the Russians were mining the town and said Russian forces were looting the Senaki military base and the Poti naval port, "destroying the property of the Georgian state."

A senior Russian Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed Georgia's complaint about troops in Senaki and Poti as "nothing more than another propagandist provocation," Interfax reported.

Borisov said his troops were not in Gori but only in the outskirts, and he said the local administration had fled upon his arrival: "When we came here ... there was no one in charge. So I called Tbilisi and asked them to send people to govern this place," he said, presenting a new mayor, Alexander Maisuradze.

Residents said they were desperate because the town had been deserted by much of its population of more than 40,000. "The Russians provide some stability, but we are all panicking," said Megi Abashidze, speaking by telephone with a reporter in Tbilisi.

She said that Wednesday night had been quiet but that residents had preferred to stay indoors. There was no gunfire, but explosions could be heard from a tank facility outside town where the Russians were destroying Georgian military vehicles, she said, adding, "We just want peace, peace, please."

Russia's Defense Ministry said its troops in Georgia might have opened fire Thursday but only to suppress fire from Georgian units.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as she stopped in Paris on her way to Tbilisi, called on Russia to honor the cease-fire with Georgia. Rice said Thursday that she would ask Saakashvili to sign a cease-fire document that will pave the way for withdrawal of Russian troops.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Thursday he sees no need to deploy US fighting forces to Georgia, The Associated Press reported.

Lavrov on Thursday also telephoned his Georgian counterpart, Eka Tkeshelashvili, Georgia's Foreign Ministry said. It said Tkeshelashvili had complained that Russia was not honoring the cease-fire and Lavrov "could not answer the questions of Georgia's foreign minister." In a separate move, Georgia's parliament voted unanimously Thursday to pull the country out of the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States.

Kremlin may be bluffing over its future recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, political analysts said.

Recognizing the separatist republics would not contribute to Russia's security and economic interests in the region and would come at great diplomatic cost, said Alexander Khramchikhin, a senior researcher with the Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

Also, by recognizing the separatists, the Kremlin would lose the right to criticize the West over Kosovo's independence bid, which many Western countries have recognized as similar to Ossetia's, said Nikolai Silayev, a Caucasus analyst with the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations.

Journalists covering the conflict spoke of harassment. Alexandra Szacka, the Moscow bureau chief for Canada's CBC Television, said Russian troops stood idly by as an armed man seized her Mitsubishi Pajero as she was standing in a convoy of about 100 journalists outside Gori on Thursday.

She said the attacker, dressed in fatigues, got out of a white car and suddenly fired a gun in the air. "Everybody fled, but I continued filming him shooting. That is probably why he went at me with his gun and took our car," she said upon returning to Tbilisi.

Szacka said three other cars were seized as well. On Wednesday, attackers outside Gori took a car and equipment from a camera team of British Sky News.

In Zugdidi, a town of 70,000 on the border with Abkhazia, Russian forces were patrolling the streets Thursday after disarming local police forces, a local member of the United Nations mission said. "But otherwise, the situation is pretty calm," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Gia Nodia, Georgia's education and science minister, said that while Tbilisi had suffered human and territorial losses, a positive outcome could be that the conflict had ended uncertainty about the country's relations with Russia. "We can enter a healthier stage ... in which we see much clearer what [Russia] wants," he said in an interview in his office in Tbilisi.

Yet Nodia was skeptical that relations with Moscow would improve soon and accused Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of having a "personal obsession with Georgia. "As long as Putin is in charge, being Russia-friendly means being subservient to and slavish to Russia," he said.

Staff Writer Nabi Abdullaev reported from Moscow; Staff Writer Nikolaus von Twickel reported from Tbilisi.