TBILISI, Georgia &
Russian officials said today that the Georgian government will not regain control over two breakaway provinces that are at the center of a week-long military conflict, as the Kremlin issued an uncompromising response to U.S. and Western threats over its military incursion deep into the territory of its tiny neighbor.
Russian troops remained in control of the key Georgian city of Gori today, although a top U.S. military official said in Washington that the invading force appeared to be preparing for a withdrawal, consistent with the terms of a cease-fire signed Tuesday.
Amid reports of scattered explosions and the continued destruction of Georgian military assets by Russian troops, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman James Cartwright said at a Pentagon briefing that Russian forces appeared to be "consolidating" in apparent preparation for a pullback. The cease-fire calls for troops to return to positions held before fighting broke out last week and a large Russian force rolled into the disputed provinces of South Ossetia and Azbhakia.
"We see them generally complying and moving back to a position where they can make their exit," Cartwright said. Russian air activity over Georgia, he said, had all but ceased.
The situation on the ground, however, remained in flux.
According to the Georgian government and wire service reports from Gori, Georgian police had approached the city today for the start of an expected handover, but left after it became apparent that the Russian troops planned to remain, at least for now. Gori is near South Ossetia and sits near the country's major east-west transportation routes.
The status of Russia's presence in a second strategic town, the port city of Poti, and in other locations around the country was also unclear. Georgian officials said that Russian troops remained in Poti, and also in the towns of Senaki and Zugdidi in the western part of the country.
The confusing events on the ground were matched at the diplomatic level, with Kremlin officials seeming to back the breakaway aspirations of the two Georgian provinces, in opposition to U.S. and European demands that the country &
closely allied with the West &
Following the events of the past week, "One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Associated Press reported from Moscow. "It is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met Thursday with leaders of the separatist movements in the two provinces and pledged to support them in discussions about the future of the two disputed regions.
"We will support any decision made by the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," Medvedev said, following a meeting in which the separatist leaders signed the French cease-fire plan in Moscow.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a trip to the region Thursday, beginning with talks in France on her way to Tbilisi.
Lavrov, in remarks broadcast on Russian radio, sounded unconcerned about White House threats that Russia could suffer a chill in relations with the West because of its incursion into Georgia.
"I don't know how they are going to isolate us," Lavrov said during an interview on radio station Echo Moskvy. "I have heard threats that we are not going to be admitted to the (World Trade Organization), but we see clearly that nobody is going to admit us there anyway," he said. His remarks were translated by the Interfax news service. "Excuse my language, but they're just stringing us along."
The Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a formal response to Bush's recent remarks on the situation, rebuking the United States for taking what it said was a one-sided view of the conflict.
"We regret that the U.S. still refuses to admit the real cause for what happened, which is that (Georgian President) Mikhail Saakashvili's regime, in violation of all its international obligations, unleashed a war against the people of South Ossetia," the statement said.
Bush said Wednesday that Russia's actions could make it unfit for membership in international political, economic and security alliances. Bush also reiterated U.S. support for Georgia, dispatching Rice to Tbilisi and ordering U.S. military forces to begin delivering humanitarian aid.
Russia on Tuesday agreed to stop offensive operations and pull its troops out of Georgian territory, but a day later took over Gori, seized munitions at Georgian military bases and set up positions along the country's main east-west highway. Paramilitary fighters accompanying the troops looted homes and stole cars, witnesses said. Statements by Georgian officials that the Ossetians were looting Gori were supported by Western reporters who witnessed homes being ransacked, cars being seized and buildings being set on fire. Black smoke billowed over part of the city Wednesday afternoon.
Staff writer Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this article. Kunkle reported from Moscow.
Russia says no to independence effort
TBILISI, Georgia &