Russia challenges George Bush as it advances through Georgia
Harry de Quetteville, Adrian Blomfield in Gori, Damien McElroy in Tblisi and Toby Harnden in Washington – Telegraph.co.uk August 13, 2008
In what appeared to be calculated defiance of the United States and the European Union, which mediated a ceasefire deal struck less than 24 hours earlier, Moscow earlier sent its forces to occupy the Georgian town of Gori, just 50 miles from the capital Tbilisi.
President George W Bush said the move had "damaged relations" between America and Russia and demanded that Moscow "keep its word" over the ceasefire, also announcing a large US aid mission to Georgia.
"To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis," he said.
But Russia retorted that America, which has a staunch ally of Tbilisi's pro-western government, would have "to choose" between building a relationship with Georgia or Russia.
"We understand that this current Georgian leadership is a special project of the United States, but one day the United States will have to choose," said the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
After an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: "Russian incursions into Georgia from South Ossetia or from Abkhazia are contrary to international law.
"The sight of Russian tanks rolling into parts of a sovereign country on its neighbouring borders will have brought a chill down the spine of many people, rightly."
Early in the day, President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia berated his country's western allies for lack of assistance in the conflict.
But following Mr Bush's offer of humanitarian aid, he claimed that Georgia's ports and airports would be placed under US military protection, a suggestion quickly denied by the Pentagon.
Russian forces on Wednesday entered the main port at Poti and detonated explosives on three Georgian patrol vessels.
In and around Gori, several reports suggested Russian forces backed by South Ossetian militias were engaged in looting and violence, but Moscow denied the claims.
As Russia extended its grip in the north of the country, about 70 military vehicles left Gori, heading towards Tbilisi, but the column later halted its advance. Russia's foreign ministry said its forces were securing weapons and army bases abandoned by the US-equipped and trained Georgian army.
"Reports spread by the Western media about movement of Russian troops on Georgian territory towards Tbilisi, and also about looting in Gori, have absolutely no foundations whatsoever," it said.
The ceasefire brokered by the EU on Tuesday called for Russian and Georgian forces to return to positions they occupied before hostilities began, obliging Russian troops to withdraw to from Georgian territory beyond the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But though President Dmitri Medvedev officially signed up to the deal in Moscow, Russian forces on the ground appeared bent on crippling Georgia's military capabilities for years to come.
Apart from taking control of Georgian bases and securing weapons around Gori, Russian forces also struck at Georgian navy vessels, surveillance drones and radar stations.
Georgian forces also appeared to have been routed from Abkhazia, the country's other breakaway zone, which lies on the Black Sea coast.
There, separatist forces took full control as Georgian forces pulled out of the strategic Kodori Gorge, their last remaining foothold in the region.
They reportedly hoisted their colours within Georgian territory beyond Abkhazia, taunting Tblisi by saying that retreating Georgian soldiers had received "American training in running away".
Lightly armed Georgian forces have apparently drawn a new front line about 40 miles north of Tbilisi, promising to defend the capital from any further southwards Russian advance.
But Mr Medvedev insisted that Russian offensive operations were over, with Mr Lavrov and his Georgian counterpart Eka Tkeshelashvili working on "the practical implementation" of the ceasefire.
Sporadic violence led by unofficial militias and irregular forces continued however, sparking fears of brutal inter-ethnic score settling. Both ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians have been accused of committing atrocities in the last week.
Last updated 15/08/2008