Russia pledges support for separatist enclaves

Georgian leaders have accused Russia of continuing to occupy key areas of the country, as Russia pledged to support two separatist enclaves, raising fears it may want to absorb them.

Reports of chaos and banditry between the lines

Russian troops travel atop military vehicles while leading a convoy entering the Black Sea port of Poti, Georgia, on Thursday. ((Bela Szandelszky/Associated Press))

Georgian leaders have accused Russia of continuing to occupy key areas of the country, as Russia pledged to support two separatist enclaves, raising fears it may want to absorb them.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met with the leaders of South Ossetia, and another Russian-dominated separatist region, Abkhazia, on Thursday in Moscow. He said that Moscow will "support any decision taken" by the peoples of the two provinces, even though the territory is internationally recognized as being within Georgia's borders.  

"We will not only support them, but guarantee them in the Caucusus and in the whole world," he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a stronger message which appeared to be aimed at Western leaders — who have called for Russia to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.

"One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," Lavrov said.

But White House press secretary Dana Perino dismissed Lavrov's comments as "bluster."

"We will ignore it," she said.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned Russia was in danger of hurting relations with the U.S. "for years to come" but said he did not see "any prospect" for the use of American military force in Georgia.

"The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," Gates said. "I see no reason to change that approach today."

Flurry of statements

The flurry of statements came as reports emerged that Russian troops are advancing rather than pulling back in parts of Georgia, hanging on to the key central city of Gori and sending forces to the Black Sea oil port of Poti.

"At the moment, Georgian territory remains occupied by Russian armed forces," Irakli Alasania, Georgia's ambassador to the UN, told reporters in New York. "Georgian cities remain to be subject to the hostile and aggressive behaviour of Russian military."

He said Russia is violating the ceasefire agreement and accused Russian troops of "looting, murder and destruction."

A French-brokered ceasefire agreement called for both sides to pull back to positions they held before the fighting started last Friday. When Georgia sent troops to try to retake the South Ossetia, Russia pushed them back and advanced far into undisputed Georgian territory.

On Thursday Georgian officials accused Russia of sending a column of more than 100 Russian tanks and other vehicles  toward Kutaisi, the second-largest city in Georgia, but then said the convoy stopped about 50 kilometres outside the city.

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told reporters in a teleconference it was unclear where the tanks are going but suggested they "are trying to rattle the civilian population."

At the Pentagon, a U.S. general said the Russians seem to be moving back to positions from which they can start to make an orderly exit. But a U.S. diplomat in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, said reports on the ground are contradictory.

Chaotic situation

In the strategically important city of Gori, CBC Moscow correspondent Alexandra Szacka said the situation is chaotic and the Russians clearly are not pulling out of the city just yet.

Russian and Georgian troops briefly patrolled Gori, but relations between the two sides broke down and the Georgians left. Russia said its troops were there to establish contact with the civilian administration and take over abandoned military depots.

"We have heard a lot of explosions around. Apparently they are exploding some Georgian ammunition depot near Gori. It's not a bombing, but still there's a lot of confusion here," she said.

Underlining the chaos, Szacka and Montreal-based CBC producer Marie-Ève Bédard had their car hijacked as they approached the city.

"There were several Russian tanks waiting for orders to go back and to let us into the city," she said, "and, out of the blue, an armed man, an unidentified man in uniform, started shooting, so it was kind of a panic.

"We were several journalists and humanitarian workers waiting there, and he started shooting and everybody started running. He ran right into our driver and then told him, 'Give me the keys! Give me the keys!' and our driver gave him the keys and he stole our car and everything inside and it was gone."

The CBC's Mike Hornbrook, stopped behind a Georgian military column on the road to Gori, said the Russians appear to have withdrawn at least partly from the area, creating a power vacuum that had been filled by bandits.

Gunmen have been stopping cars and robbing people, sometimes under the noses of Russian troops, he said.

"The Russians were there; they were sitting on their vehicles and they didn't try to stop them," he said, adding: "I heard one of them quoted as saying, 'We have no orders to do anything about this.'"

U.S. flies in supplies

In a show of support, Washington was sending planeloads of supplies to Georgia, including cots, blankets and medicine for people displaced by the fighting, aboard giant C-17 military aircraft.

Earlier, Gen. James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, said the Russians seemed to be pulling out of captured territory or at least getting ready to do so.

The latest U.S. intelligence suggests they are "generally complying and moving back into a position where they can start to make their exit in an orderly fashion," he said.

But a U.S. diplomat, Matthew Bryza, speaking from Tbilisi, said there were conflicting reports on the ground.

At the peak of the conflict, Moscow had sent thousands of troops into South Ossetia and the larger separatist province of Abkhazia. Each side has accused the other of committing ethnic cleansing in the region.

While South Ossetia's independence is not recognized internationally, it has close ties to Russia, and almost all of its 70,000 residents have Russian passports.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking to reporters in Newfoundland, said the situation is troubling.

"Obviously we've called on both sides to cease the fighting, and I gather a ceasefire now appears to be taking hold," he said.

"But we do call on Russia to respect the territorial integrity of Georgia, and I must tell you that I am deeply troubled by a notion I see developing in Russia, and that is a notion that Russia somehow has a say or some control over countries outside of its borders.

"In my judgment, this is a very worrisome development. It really indicates a Soviet-era mentality."

With files from the Associated Press