Russian convoy heads into Georgia, violating truce

By: CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI
By: CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) - A Russian military convoy thrust deep into Georgia on Wednesday and Georgian officials said Russian troops bombed and looted the crossroads city of Gori, violating a freshly brokered truce intended to end the conflict.

In the west, Georgia's weakened military acknowledged its soldiers had pulled out entirely from Abkhazia, leaving both breakaway regions at the heart of the fighting in the hands of Russian-backed separatists.

Even as the Russian troops moved deep into Georgian territory from the separatist region of South Ossetia, a few dozen fighters from Abkhazia offered their own brazen challenge, planting their flag on a bridge over the Inguri River - outside the rebel territory.

"The border has been along this river for 1,000 years," separatist official Ruslan Kishmaria told AP on Wednesday. He said Georgia would have to accept the new border and taunted the departed Georgian forces by saying they had received "American training in running away."

An AP reporter saw several dozen Russian military trucks and armored vehicles speeding out of Gori and heading south, further from the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Soldiers waved at journalists and one soldier shouted to a photographer takning shots of the convoy: "Come with us, beauty, we're going to Tbilisi." Gori is about a 90-minute drive from the Georgian capital.

The developments came less than 12 hours after Georgia's president said he accepted a cease-fire plan intended to end the fighting that bloodied and battered the U.S. ally and uprooted an estimated 100,000 people.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia was halting military action because Georgia had paid enough for its attack on South Ossetia, a separatist region along the Russian border with close ties to Moscow.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had gambled on a surprise attack late Thursday to regain control over his country's pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia. Instead, Georgia suffered a punishing beating from Russian tanks and aircraft that has left the country with even less control over territory than it had before.

Georgia's Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said that Russia had moved 50 tanks into Gori, a strategic town 15 miles from the border with South Ossetia, violating the new accord.

"Russia has treacherously broken its word," Lomaia said.

Russia's deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn denied any tanks were in Gori. He said Russians went into the city to try to implement the truce with local Georgian officials but could not find any.

An APTN television crew in Gori saw some Russian armored vehicles Wednesday morning near a military base there. Puffs of smoke in the air indicated some military action.

Nogovitsyn said sporadic clashes continued in South Ossetia where Georgian snipers fired sporadically on Russian troops who returned fire. "We must respond to provocations," he said.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Zurab Gvenetadze said that Russian forces seized a military base on the outskirts of Gori, situated on Georgia's only significant east-west road.

Lomaia said that Russian troops also held ground in western Georgia, maintaining control of the town of Zugdidi where they seized the central police station and government buildings and saddling the main highway in the region. He said there had been no fresh clashes since the truce.

Georgia insisted its troops were driven from Abkhazia by Russian forces. At first, Russia said separatists - not Russian forces - had done the job. But the claim rang hollow - an AP reporter saw 135 Russian military vehicles heading toward the gorge Tuesday and Russia is the military patron for the separatists.

Nogovitsyn said Wednesday that Russian peacekeepers had disarmed Georgian troops in Kodori - the very peacekeepers Georgia wants withdrawn. Still, the effect was clear. Abkhazia was out of Georgian hands and it would take more than an EU peace plan to get it back in.

Nogovitsyn said Wednesday that Russian peacekeepers had disarmed Georgian troops in Kodori - the very peacekeepers Georgia wants withdrawn. Still, the effect was clear. Abkhazia was out of Georgian hands and it would take more than an EU peace plan to get it back in.

One of two separatists areas trying to leave Georgia for Russia, Abkhazia lies close to the heart of many Russians. It's Black Sea coast was a favorite vacation spot for the Soviet elite, and the province is just down the coast from Sochi, the Russian resort that will host the 2014 Olympics.

Russia has handed out passports to most in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and stationed peacekeepers in the both regions since the early 1990s. Georgia wants the Russian peacekeepers out, but Medvedev insisted Tuesday they would stay.

Saakashvili said Russia's aim all along was not to gain control of two disputed provinces but to "destroy" the smaller nation, a former Soviet state and current U.S. ally.

Russia accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in South Ossetia. The claim couldn't be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died.

The overall death toll was expected to rise because large areas of Georgia were still too dangerous for journalists to enter and see the true scope of the damage.

Georgia's Health Minister Alexander Kvitashvili said Wednesday that 175 Georgians had died in five days of air and ground attacks that left homes in smoldering ruins. He said many died Tuesday in a Russian raid of Gori hours before Medvedev declared fighting halted.

An AP reporter also saw heavy damage inflicted to a Georgian village near Gori by a raid which the villagers said came only half-hour before Russian television broadcast Medvedev's statement. Two men and a woman in the village of Ruisi, in undisputed Georgian territory just outside South Ossetia, were killed and five were wounded.

"I always hide in the basement," said one villager, 70-year old Vakhtang Chkhekvadze, as he was picking away what was left of a window frame torn by an explosion. "But this time the explosion came so abruptly, I don't remember what happened afterward."

The first relief flight from the U.N. refugee agency arrived in Georgia as the number of people uprooted by the conflict neared 100,000.

Thousands streamed into the capital.

Those left behind in devastated regions of Georgia cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered nearly deserted cities.

Georgia, which is pushing for NATO membership, borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s. Both separatist provinces are backed by Russia, which appears open to absorbing them.

Medvedev said Georgia must allow the provinces to decide whether they want to remain part of Georgia. He said Russian peacekeepers would stay in both provinces, even as Saakashvili said his government will officially designate them as occupying forces.

Georgia sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and bypassing Russia. The British oil company BP shut down one of three Georgian pipelines, saying it was a precaution.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia reported from Zugdidi, Georgia, and near the Kodori Gorge. Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia. David Nowak in Tbilisi; Sergei Grits in Ruisi, Georgia; Douglas Birch in Tskhinvali, Georgia; Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov, Lynn Berry and Angela Charlton in Moscow; Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-08-13-08 0827EDT


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