U.S. Navy Ship Unloads Aid as Russian Soldiers Watch Closely

ReutersU.S. sailors unloading aid from the USS Mount Whitney in Poti on Saturday.
ABOARD THE USS MOUNT WHITNEY -- As nearby Russian forces watched intently, a U.S. Navy ship unloaded 17 tons of humanitarian aid to the Georgian port of Poti.

A massive Georgian floating crane lifted about 40 pallets stacked with toilet paper, toothpaste, diapers, blankets and other aid off the deck of the USS Mount Whitney, the first Navy ship to travel to the strategic port since the war. A tugboat then guided the crane to shore. Saturday's delivery completed a series of shipments demonstrating U.S. support for Georgia and angering Russia.

A Russian warship trailed the Mount Whitney -- the flagship of the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean fleet -- across the Black Sea, U.S. officials said, and Russian military forces onshore -- nearly five kilometers from the ship's anchorage -- kept watch Saturday. "They're clearly watching us very, very closely, and I think they'll be very happy when we leave," said the ship's commanding officer, Captain Owen Honors.

At one Russian position near Poti, soldiers refused to let a reporter speak to the commander but knew what he planned to ask. "Yes, we saw the ship. It's a very good ship," one officer said.

The Kremlin has watched U.S. warships carrying aid with suspicion and said could be a cover for weapons deliveries, a claim dismissed by U.S. officials. President Dmitry Medvedev repeated the suggestions Saturday. "It's interesting how they would feel if we were now to send humanitarian aid using our Navy to the countries of the Caribbean Sea, which recently suffered from a destructive hurricane," Medvedev told a Security Council meeting in Moscow.

n Four Russian ships and 1,000 soldiers will take part in joint naval maneuvers with Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea from Nov. 10 to 14, the Venezuelan newspaper Vea reported Saturday.