Russian tanks and troops roamed freely around Gori today and made forays toward the Georgian capital, keeping control of the road that slices through Georgia’s midsection despite Russia’s announcement that a withdrawal had begun.
The movements of Russian forces around the key city of Gori raised questions about whether Russia was fulfilling its side of the ceasefire intended to end the short but intense fighting that reignited Cold War tensions.
The deputy chief of the Russian general staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told a briefing in Moscow that “today, according to the peace plan, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers and reinforcements has begun” and said forces were leaving Gori.
But Russian military vehicles roared along roads in and around Gori and Russian troops were restricting access to the city, where shops were shut and people milled around on the central square with its statue of the Soviet dictator and native son Josef Stalin.
“The city is a cold place now. People are fearful,” said Nona Khizanishvili, 44, who fled Gori a week ago for an outlying village and returned today, trying to reach her son in Tbilisi.
And around Gori, the only movement appeared to be in the opposite direction from Russia and South Ossetia – toward the Georgian capital Tbilisi, 55 miles to the east.
Four Russian armoured personnel carriers, each carrying about 15 men, rolled today from Gori to Igoeti, a crossroads town even closer to Tbilisi. Passing Georgian soldiers who sat by the roadside, the Russians moved into Igoeti then turned off onto a side road. As the Russian APCs drove past a group of Georgian soldiers and policemen, one swerved and scraped a new Georgian police car, while the Georgians looked down at their fingernails.
“The Russians have not withdrawn,” said Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia.
Georgia’s Rustavi-2 television showed footage of what appeared to be Russian armoured vehicles smashing through a group of Georgian police cars barricading a road, and said the incident took place Monday in Igoeti. One of the cars was dragged along the street by the Russian armour.
A US official said the Russian military had moved missile launchers into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
In Moscow, Nogovitsyn told a briefing that “today, according to the peace plan, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers and reinforcements has begun.”
Russian troops and tanks have controlled a wide swathe of Georgia for days, including the country’s main east-west highway where Gori sits. The Russian presence essentially cuts the small Caucasus Mountain nation in half and threatens pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili’s efforts to keep it from falling apart after the war strengthened the Russian-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The RIA-Novosti news agency reported that the leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, asked Russia on Monday to establish a permanent base there, the news agency said.
According to the European Union-brokered peace plan signed by both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Saakashvili, both sides are to pull forces back to the positions they held before fighting broke out on August 7 in South Ossetia.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, heading to Brussels, was expected to push Nato allies on Tuesday to curtail high level meetings and military cooperation with Russia unless Moscow stuck to its ceasefire pledge to withdraw troops from Georgia.
In Vladikavkaz, near the border with Georgia, Medvedev gave medals to 30 soldiers and servicemen involved in the conflict.
“It has been only 10 days since you faced a cowardly aggression,” he said, standing on a drill square in front of camouflage-clad soldiers and officers he called heroes.
“I am sure that such a well-done, effective and peacemaking operation aimed at protecting our citizens and other people will be among the most glorious deeds of the Russian military,” Medvedev said.
While Western leaders have called Russia’s response disproportionate, Medvedev repeated Russian accusations of genocide.
“The world realised that even now there are political freaks who were ready to kill innocent people for the sake of political fashions and who compensated for their own stupidity by eliminating a whole nation,” he said.