Georgia-Russia truce faces new test

The fragile truce between Georgia and Russia faced a new test on Thursday as Moscow pledged to begin handing over a key Georgian town amid a continuing war of words.

Tension also remained high between Russia and the West, with Moscow warning Washington it would have to choose between its partnership with the Kremlin or supporting Georgia.

However, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is travelling to Paris and Tbilisi on Thursday, was not scheduled to visit Moscow.

On Wednesday, a day after agreeing to the French-plan that ended five days of bitter fighting, Moscow and Tbilisi exchanged accusations of breaching the truce.

Russian armoured vehicles patrolled Gori, a key town linking the east and the west of the country that is close to South Ossetia, the breakaway Georgian region at the centre of the conflict.

Hundreds of South Ossetian rebels with some Russian army personnel went house-to-house in villages near Gori. They torched homes and looted buildings, witnesses said.

The body of a man, his mouth caked with blood, lay in a street in the village of Dzardzanis and nearby the body of a bearded man could be seen crushed under an overturned minivan, an Agence France-Presse journalist reported.

Human Rights Watch said its researchers in South Ossetia had “witnessed terrifying scenes of destruction in four villages that used to be populated exclusively by ethnic Georgians”.

A senior Georgian official, citing the Russian military, said Russian troops would begin transferring control of Gori on Thursday to the Georgian police force.

A senior Russian military official, General Vyacheslav Borissov, confirmed to the Interfax news agency that the handover would begin on Thursday, but said it would take two days before it would be completed and they would leave.

“Beginning [on Thursday], the city’s police will resume their work,” he was quoted as saying.

“For another two days Russian troops will remain in the [Gori] region ... to transfer control to Georgian police, and then they will leave,” he added.

Russian troops and armour rolled into Georgia’s South Ossetia region on Friday in response to a Georgian bid to regain control of the renegade province that broke from Tbilisi in the early 1990s. Russian troops then pushed on into other parts of Georgia while aircraft bombed targets across the country.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday halted Moscow’s offensive and French President Nicolas Sarkozy later negotiated a ceasefire with Medvedev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

However, Russia on Wednesday said that while it would talk with the European Union about the truce agreement, it refuses to deal directly with the Georgian president.

“We still have diplomatic relations with Georgia, we have millions of Georgian nationals who are Russian citizens and living happily in Russia,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told BBC television.

“But we won’t directly talk to Saakashvili, we won’t do that. We offered him peace but not friendship.”

Russia has accused Georgia of violating the truce by failing to pursue an “active withdrawal” from South Ossetia, where Moscow says 2 000 civilians were killed in the fighting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that Russia would only withdraw from Georgia after Georgian troops had returned to their barracks.

On Wednesday, he stepped up the ante against Washington, asking it to choose between a “relatively virtual” relationship with Tbilisi and a “partnership [with Russia] on questions that require collective action”.

But US President George Bush dispatched Rice to Tbilisi and not Moscow, warning Russia it risked harming its international position if it did not quickly pull out its troops and abide by the ceasefire agreement.

“To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the US, 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 demanded.

Rice, who left Washington late on Wednesday, was set to meet with Sarkozy in Paris on Thursday to discuss the peace deal before travelling to Tbilisi for talks with Saakashvili.

Bush also repeated US support for Georgia’s territorial integrity—while Russia says it recognises Georgia’s sovereignty, it no longer accepts Tbilisi’s control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region.

The French peace plan glossed over this issue, calling only for talks on ensuring security in the regions.

Meanwhile, the first United Nations and US planes carrying humanitarian aid landed in Tbilisi on Wednesday with tents, blankets and emergency supplies, officials said, as the world stepped up efforts to help the victims of the conflict.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, denied comments by Saakashvili that the US would take over control of Georgia’s seaports and airports as part of the humanitarian efforts.

“We do not need nor do we intend to take over any air or seaports in order to deliver humanitarian assistance to those caught in this conflict,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

Russia claims the conflict has left more than 2 000 civilians dead, while the UN estimates about 100 000 people have been forced from their homes.

The Georgian health minister put the death toll in Georgia at 175 people, mainly civilians. Russia said 74 of its troops had been killed.—AFP

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