August 23, 2008
Sunday August 24 2008
Invading forces are set to stay for the long term, reports Luke Harding, after seeing the trenches on a flight over the port of Poti
By Luke Harding
A day after announcing that it had 'withdrawn' from Georgia, Russian troops continued to occupy large areas of the country yesterday in defiance of international pressure and in breach of a ceasefire deal signed by Moscow.
The country's forces were in control of several key areas outside the original conflict zone - including the Black Sea port of Poti and the western town of Senaki. Additionally, troops had established new 'buffer zones' around the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The United States, France and Britain have denounced Russia's failure to fully withdraw troops. They say it has blatantly failed to 'comply' with a ceasefire agreement obliging it to pull back to its positions before the conflict started on 7 August.
There was compelling evidence yesterday, however, that Russia is planning a long-term occupation of Georgia. The Observer witnessed Russian soldiers digging trenches seven kilometres outside the port of Poti next to the Rioni river and the main highway to Tbilisi.
A Russian flag flew above a grassy camp; around 20 soldiers were spread out in trenches and next to an armoured personnel carrier. A crowd of about 1,000 demonstrated in front of them yesterday afternoon, waving Georgian flags and shouting: 'Go home.'
'This isn't peacekeeping. This is occupation. Their objective is to blockade Georgia and Georgians,' Fatuna Rubakidze, 29, said. Pointing to the bridge across the river, she said: 'This allows them to stop traffic to Poti. It means they can always blackmail us.'
The Russians had taken off their regular army helmets and replaced them with blue peacekeeping ones. Locals flung leaflets at them in Russian with the slogan: 'No to Russian fascism'. The soldiers stood implacably in the afternoon sunshine. Once the crowd left, they took the leaflets away. 'Yesterday they were regular soldiers. Today they are peacekeepers. Whatever they are, we want them to leave our territory,' Fatuna, a police lieutenant, said, clicking a photograph of the soldiers with her mobile phone.
The Kremlin's plan now appears clear: to maintain a significant military presence in Georgia, capable of choking the country's economy and shutting down its major trade routes. It also allows Russia the option of a future invasion, should it want one.
The deputy head of Russia's general staff, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, was unrepentant yesterday. He said Russia would continue to patrol Poti - even though it lies outside any so-called 'security zone'. Russia insists that under a previous agreement it can station 2,600 'peacekeeping' troops beyond the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
'Poti is not in the security zone. But that doesn't mean we will sit behind the fence watching as they drive around in Hummers,' Nogovitsyn said, in sardonic reference to the four US Humvees seized by Russia in Poti last week. The vehicles were used in joint US-Georgian military exercises.
The general accused Nato of increasing tensions in the Black Sea. American, Spanish German and Polish ships are all heading to the area, with US ships due to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia today. This 'did not contribute to the settlement of the situation', he said.
Georgia yesterday described Russia's occupation as 'absolutely illegal'. Moscow's failure to leave is deeply embarrassing for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the ceasefire deal last weekend with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev.
Georgian officials yesterday took The Observer by helicopter across a landscape of shimmering green pasture and mountain to the steamy port of Poti. Their aim was to show off its destruction by Russian soldiers - and to point out that they were still there.
Russian bombers destroyed Poti's naval base, killing five people, on the second day of the war. Yesterday, the gun turret of a sunken vessel stuck out above the turquoise water; nearby a white coastguard boat was listing and sunk. Russian soldiers had ransacked the port's main building, blowing open doors and upturning filing cabinets. One had written on a whiteboard: 'Georgian bitches. Die pederast cocks'.
'They turned up in 23 BMP armoured vehicles and took whatever was valuable,' said Reza Managadze, a port employee. 'They didn't even leave us anything to eat.' In a smashed-up medical room lay a portrait of Georgia's pro-US president Mikheil Saakashvili. A Russian soldier had stamped on it. He then added one word: 'Dick'.
In the town of Gori, normal life slowly resumed after the withdrawal of Russian forces yesterday. Residents began trickling back; a few shops reopened. But the Russians had not gone far, setting up a new checkpoint about 15km north of the city. Russia says that it intends to have 18 checkpoints on the road to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.