Russia Turns Aid Convoy Away at Checkpoint

KARALETI, Georgia -- Russian soldiers prevented international aid convoys from visiting Georgian villages on Monday in a blunt demonstration of power in a tense zone around the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

The ambassadors of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia said they also had been barred from visiting villages beyond Russian checkpoints.

Monday's show of authority came as French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried in Moscow to persuade Russia to honor its pledge to pull its troops back to the positions they held before the fighting broke out Aug. 7.

A convoy of four vehicles from UN aid agencies waited for about an hour at the checkpoint in Karaleti but was turned away after a brief discussion with a Russian general who arrived to negotiate. The three SUVs and a World Food Program truck loaded with wheat flour, pasta, sugar and other staples were headed to Georgian villages around South Ossetia.

"We tried to do a preliminary humanitarian assessment mission. It didn't work out today as we would have hoped, and we will make every effort to continue to conduct such missions in the future," said David Carden, who was leading the interagency mission by the World Food Program, UNICEF and the UN refugee agency.

The general left after the exchange, and a soldier at the checkpoint said he was not authorized to comment on the reason for the refusal. Soldiers said the general was Major General Marat Kulakhmetov, head of the Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia.

An official at the headquarters of Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia said later by telephone that the UN convoy was turned away because no official request had been submitted.

The official, who said he was not authorized to give his name to the media, said aid deliveries must be escorted by peacekeeping forces.

Carden said UN authorities had told the Russians of their plans.

Russian forces on Friday barred the ambassadors of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia from villages beyond Russian checkpoints where they wanted to deliver aid, assess the situation and verify allegations of ethnic cleansing, the ambassadors said in a statement.

They said the restrictions violated the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations and the cease-fire deal approved by Russia and Georgia, which calls for unfettered access for humanitarian aid.

A vehicle from CARE International on an assessment mission on behalf of several nongovernmental aid agencies was also turned away Monday, before the general arrived.