Port's Problems Echo Troubles in Georgia

POTI, Georgia — When Alan Middleton became CEO of the Poti Sea Port Corporation this spring, he thought he was moving to a position in a promising emerging market and not to what would soon be a war zone.

But a Russian bombing raid on the night of Aug. 8-9, following an assault by Georgian troops on South Ossetia, killed three of his employees and two other workers and caused damages of around $1 million, Middleton said.

Then, early Monday morning, Russian ground troops moved onto the grounds of the port, he said, and destroyed a Georgian warship, took 21 Georgian soldiers hostage and absconded with five U.S. Humvees.

The situation in Poti is just one part of a larger confusing picture where, despite the signing in Moscow of a truce between Georgia and Russia last week, it remained unclear Wednesday whether Russian troops were withdrawing, as called for in the agreement, or carrying out further operations.

The United States and Germany added their concerns to those expressed by France a day earlier that Russian troops were either dragging their feet on pulling out of Georgia proper or were digging their forces in ahead of an even longer stay.

The Kremlin, while maintaining that it was sticking to the terms of the agreement to pull out its troops, fired off a number of warnings suggesting that it was prepared to take a harder line with the United States and NATO late Wednesday.

Russia fired a salvo at the United States over the signing earlier in the day by Warsaw and Washington of an agreement to station elements of a U.S. missile-defense system on Polish soil, saying its response to the deal would go beyond the diplomatic.

"It is clear to us — and the U.S. leadership does not deny this — that the … anti-missile defense in Europe will broadened and modernized. In this case, Russia will be forced to react, and not only through diplomatic demarches," a statement from the Foreign Ministry said.

Norway's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said Russia had informed it that it planned to cut all military ties with NATO.

Ministry spokesman Heidi Langvik-Hanson said the country's embassy received a call from the Russian Defense Ministry saying Moscow plans "to freeze all military cooperation with NATO and allied countries," The Associated Press reported.

On the ground in Georgia, the fact that the sole significant highway linking the eastern and western parts of the country was still blocked by Russian troops in the town of Gori and that the blowing up of a train bridge in the region has halted rail transport along the route continued to create significant problems for Middleton and his port.

Shipments to eastern Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Tajikistan, which make up the bulk of the business for Middleton's company, were still stuck in Poti.

"We are the gateway to the Caucasus," he said.

There remained few signs earlier Wednesday that the transportation situation was set to improve, while the Georgian government expressed fears that Russian forces still inside the country might be preparing to destroy bridges and other infrastructure.

In the afternoon, a Moscow Times reporter saw a group of about a dozen soldiers setting up a signaling truck on the road between Poti and the nearby town of Senaki, in a field between the highway and a railway bridge over the Rioni River.

Their commander, a captain who would only give his first name, Alexei, said the position was a temporary one. Asked about Tbilisi's allegations that troops were preparing to destroy transport infrastructure, he said, "We do not have the means to blow up such a bridge."

While Russian positions closer to Tbilisi remained late Wednesday evening, the military presence in Gori appeared to be much smaller, The Associated Press reported.

No Russian tanks or troops were to be seen in the city and bridges and access points to the city had been abandoned by the soldiers that had been manning them in the morning. Heavy military equipment that had been stationed at the eastern end of the city had also been removed, the news agency reported.

To the east, however, Russian soldiers were guarding the Senaki military base, which they had taken over from the Georgian army last week and where they were apparently still in the process of destroying military equipment and infrastructure.

Reporters standing outside the base, which boasts large, modern buildings, said they heard three massive explosions from inside, after which they saw columns of smoke rising above the area.

David Dadiani, a local resident, said that there had been 23 such explosions on Tuesday.

The Georgian government said armored vehicles had also entered Chogha, a mountain village in the western part of the country and that troops were digging trenches there. The reports could not be verified.

The Russian General Staff, while maintaining that a pullback was under way, muddied the waters a bit on Wednesday, saying some troops would remain stationed in a buffer zone around South Ossetia, for as long as Moscow thought was necessary, Reuters reported.

Asked how long Russian forces might remain in the zone, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the General Staff, told reporters "Time will show. It depends on how the political process develops," the news agency said.

He said the mandate for Russian peacekeepers also allowed them to operate in a buffer zone around Georgia's other Moscow-backed breakaway region, Abkhazia. That zone includes the town of Senaki, Nogovitsyn said.

In Washington, the White House described the movement of Russian troops so far as insignificant and said that the withdrawal must move more quickly, Reuters reported.

"We are beginning to see the early signs of some withdrawal," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters, the news agency said. "It is not significant and it needs to increase. Both the size and pace of the withdrawal needs to increased and needs to increase sooner rather than later."

Russian officials on Wednesday revised down their estimate of civilian casualties from the previous forecast of 1,600.

An official from the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's Office, Dmitry Shalkov, said 133 civilian deaths in South Ossetia had been confirmed, but said the figure could not be considered complete because many victims already had been buried, The Associated Press reported.