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U.S. Aid Arrives As Washington Stresses Commitment to Georgia

  • RFE/RL

A U.S. transport plane full of humanitarian aid is unloaded at the airport in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

The first U.S. military plane bringing aid to Georgia landed in Tbilisi overnight, with U.S. officials promising many more to follow.

The military airlift is to be complemented by U.S. naval ships delivering aid to Georgian ports in the days to come.

The inflow of aid is intended to send two messages.

The first is clear and easy to read: Washington will help Georgia recover from its mauling at the hands of the Russian Army.

The second message is more subtle. The aid is being delivered by U.S. military forces in a sign that Washington is committed to Georgia's statehood and eventual NATO membership even if Russian forces are on Georgian soil.

"[A] wonderful sign of humanitarian concern of the United States in the form of the U.S. military assistance has arrived," said U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who is in Tbilisi. "This is the first of many such shipments that will come both by U.S. naval forces and our air force. It's a sign of our commitment to Georgia's peaceful future, it's peaceful present, our close ties of friendship, our common interests, our common values."

Russia's General Staff says it is concerned by the type of cargo the United States is airlifting to Georgia. It did not elaborate.

Rice Heads To Region

In a further signal of support, U.S. President George W. Bush has dispatched his top diplomat to the region. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to arrive in Paris on August 14 before flying on to Tbilisi.

A Russian helicopter flies over the city of Gori, where Russian forces are lingering.
"The United States has made very clear that it is standing by the democratically elected government of Georgia," Rice said at the State Department on August 13. "[Georgia] is a small neighbor of Russia. It is a country that has made considerable progress in terms of its economy. It is still trying to secure its democratic institutions, and we've worked with Georgia on that. But if anyone had any doubts about our support for Georgia, you only have to look at the fact that it's a Millennium Challenge country, which is one of the most important designations that the United States can make, that we believe in the future of that country."

In Paris, Rice is expected to meet with French officials over the French-brokered cease-fire to the conflict. The five-point plan calls for a return of all forces to their positions prior to the fighting that broke out a little over a week ago.

But the return of forces has yet to fully take place, keeping tensions extremely high.

Reports Of Looting

Russian troops that had occupied the central Georgian city of Gori are lingering in the region. Russian commanders say their purpose now is to demilitarize the area and assure security for residents following looting.

Rice's Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, denied U.S. accusations that Russian soldiers were failing to prevent such looting, saying Moscow "will not allow any such actions."

But RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Koba Liklikadze, reporting from Gori on August 14, says he witnessed heavily armed gunmen in a car with North Ossetian number plates stealing two cars belonging to Georgia's independent Imedi television and a U.S. humanitarian organization. The incident took place, Liklikadze reports, directly in front of Russian soldiers in armored vehicles and tanks.

"After this, [the gunmen] fired in the air several times, and so we had to move back," Liklikadze said. "This was followed by an explosion on a nearby mountain, presumably from artillery fire or a tank. And while all this was going on, one Russian officer was telling me that everything was calm in Gori, that there was no looting."

Russian Troop Movements

Georgian officials have offered mixed assessments of Russian movements in the country.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said in Tbilisi on August 14 that Russian armor and soldiers were leaving Gori and the Black Sea port of Poti, a key oil terminal.

A Russian soldier looks on as Georgian police patrol cars enter the flashpoint city of Gori.
But the Georgian Foreign Ministry said a few hours later that Russian troop numbers had actually increased in Gori, and forces had similarly moved into Poti.

Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia's general staff, is quoted by Reuters as saying it is legitimate for Russian peacekeepers to be in Poti for intelligence operations. The General Staff had previously denied Russian troops were in Poti.

'This Is A Nightmare'

Ordinary Georgians are still reeling from the shock of the brief conflict, which began over the separatist region of South Ossetia but escalated into a Russian push into the Georgian heartland and fighting in another separatist region, Abkhazia.

"This is a nightmare, some kind of a bad dream from which one has to wake up," said Keren Esebua, a resident of the western Georgian town of Zugdidi, which also was occupied by Russian forces.

"There is immense aggression directed against absolutely innocent people. We are living under occupation," Esebua told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "I am from Sukhumi. First [Russia] kicked me out from my home there [in the early 1990's]. Now they are also expelling us from our land. Georgia has been through the same thing twice – and no one knows for what."

'The President Has Asked Us'

Georgians from other parts of the country have rushed to help those who were caught up in the fighting.

"I brought food -- some milk, cheese and eggs. I'll leave it all here, so that it's distributed among the displaced," said Jondi Kalandadze as he brought food to refugees who had gathered at a registration center in Tbilisi. "The president has asked us [to help these people], as well as the prime minister. I'm a Georgian man. I have a little farm. Why else do I need any of it if I don't help my fellow Georgians?"

The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been displaced in South Ossetia and in Georgia proper due to the conflict. The estimate is based on numbers supplied by the Russian and Georgian governments and has yet to be independently confirmed by international agencies.
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.