Russian troops slow to leave Georgia

NATO said Tuesday that it 'cannot continue with business as usual' with Russia until Russia removes its troops. Meanwhile, Georgians struggle to stay safe and get food.

Bela Szandelszky/AP
Detained: Georgians sat atop a Russian armored personnel carrier Tuesday after being detained by Russian troops in Poti, Georgia.

Two days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that his country's troops would begin withdrawing from Georgia, there's little evidence of a pullout, with Georgians in occupied territory struggling to stay safe and get food.

A few hundred meters north of Georgia's ransacked Army base in the central Georgian city of Gori, Russian troops on Monday were digging trenches to fortify an artillery battery.

The troops also have detained Georgian policemen and continue to block the only highway linking west to east Georgia. And Russia's presence in Georgia is not limited to its military. Russian broadcasts have replaced Georgian TV in Russian-occupied cities such as Gori.

"For four days all we've seen is Russian TV. They make us Georgians look like such animals," says Gori resident Zoya Lazarishvili.

One column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles left Gori on Tuesday, but Russian officials said the main withdrawal would not happen for days to come.

Russian soldiers took 20 Georgian troops prisoner at a key port in western Georgia on Tuesday and commandeered American Humvees used in US-Georgian military exercises in the past few years.

NATO ends 'business as usual'

The developments came as ministers of the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), meeting in Brussels, said the alliance "cannot continue with business as usual" with Russia until it had fully pulled out of Georgia. [Editor's note: NATO was corrected from 'American' to 'Atlantic']

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed Tuesday to immediately send 20 additional unarmed military monitors to areas near the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia and to deploy up to 80 more. The OSCE already has eight military monitors there as part of its 200-person mission in Georgia. Six were in South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, until they were evacuated to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi after their field office was shelled during the recent fighting between Georgian and Russian troops.

Russia's Navy said on Tuesday it had canceled a September visit by a US navy ship to a Russian port. The US last week pulled out of a naval exercise with Russia because of Russia's intervention in Georgia.

But while Western officials mull how to punish Russia, polls suggest most Russians approve of their government's actions.

A survey by the independent Levada Analytical Center in Moscow showed 71 percent of respondents supported Russian-backed South Ossetia in the conflict, with 21 percent neutral and only 2 percent support for Georgia.

Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of Gori's population of 50,000 has fled, according to Christoph Bierwirth, of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) in Georgia. The city is a virtual ghost town as shops are shuttered and the streets are empty of cars and people. Most of those who remain in Gori are the elderly and feeble. Few young people stayed behind.

Signs of looting are visible, particularly at a bank across the street from City Hall, but residents say the looting was minimal.

"Some Ossetians came and stole some cars and robbed some stores of groceries, but there weren't too many problems," says Nodar Diasamisze, who stayed in Gori as it was being occupied by Russian forces last week.

Villages outside Gori, however, have been more vulnerable to roaming bands of irregular paramilitaries.

Many homes along the road to the nearby village of Karaleti have been bombed and burned and every market looted. Medea Bibilashvili says that Karaleti was not pillaged by Russian troops, but by "marauders." "I don't know who stole everything," she acknowledges.

Others, however, appear quite certain who the marauders were.

A woman named Marina who spoke on that condition that her family name not be used, was one of eight people who had just come out from hiding in a garage. "Ossetians attacked us, they stole all our cars – didn't leave a single one," she says.

The only cars left in Karaleti are the few shells of recently burned wrecks.Marina's house was ransacked and a store room burned while she hid at a neighbor's. Locals claim only a few citizens were actually killed, although Ms. Bibilashvili says that some young men were rounded up and taken away. The number could not be verified.

Georgian villages ransacked

Georgian villages north of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali did not fare as well. Rena Effendi, a freelance photographer who just returned from a Russian-sponsored journalist tour of the Georgian breakaway region, recalls the overwhelming stench of burning bodies as she traveled south from the town of Kurta.

"There was nothing left of the village. Many homes were still burning," she says. "I'll never forget that smell."

Dazed ethnic Georgian refugees tell stories of how they hid in basements while Ossetian and Chechen marauders ransacked their possessions, of neighbors being shot and of homes being torched.

Those who could ran with nothing but the clothes on their backs while those too old and feeble remained behind.

"They poured gasoline on houses and lit them on fire every day," says Alexi Datashvili, one of some two dozen elderly and feeble residents who fled to Gori from the Georgian villages of Tamarsheni, Khekvi, Achaveli, and Kurta.

"The Russians were normal. The Ossetians stole cows, pianos, cars... and killed everything. There is not a person, a dog, a chicken left alive," Mr. Datashvili grieved. "It's genocide."

Russia's Ministry of Extraordinary Situations evacuated these residents and bused them to an abandoned orphanage in Gori, where they were given boxes of humanitarian aid.

Presently, the most pressing problem for Georgians in Gori, and more so for those in the villages, is access to food. Organizations like the Red Cross and UNHCR complain that having no security guarantees prevents them from delivering food and medicines to the villages. UNCHR spokeswoman, Lita Sunjit, estimated that some 30,000 families around Gori cannot receive aid. "All South Ossetia is cut off from us," Sunjit said.

In Gori, people struggle in chaotic lines at various distribution points for staples like bread and pasta, but the residents of Karateli, effectively cut off from Gori, have no such luxury.

Malkhaz Koletashvili, one of the eight that emerged red-eyed from a garage declared, "there are no shops. We have no flour, no salt, no bread. We are hungry."

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