Mon, Aug 25, 2008 - Page 1 News List

US destroyer arrives at Georgian port as Russia fears ‘cover’

AFP , BATUMI, GEORGIA

A US Navy destroyer carrying relief supplies arrived at a port in Georgia yesterday in a sign of US support for its ally as Russian troops dug in further up the coast.

Moscow faced renewed pressure to withdraw its forces from western Georgia, where they control access to the key Black Sea port of Poti. They also held positions around South Ossetia.

In further fallout from the five- day conflict, a train carrying fuel from Azerbaijan exploded just west of Gori in central Georgia, sending a thick black tower of smoke billowing into the air.

Georgia’s interior ministry said the rail track, a vital east-west link across Georgia, had been mined but no casualties were reported.

The USS McFaul dropped anchor off Batumi, 50km south of Poti, the first of three ships carrying blankets, food and other supplies to help Georgia deal with an estimated 100,000 displaced people.

A top Russian general on Saturday accused NATO countries of using humanitarian aid as “cover” for a build-up of naval forces in the Black Sea, heightening tension in the aftermath of the conflict.

Russia withdrew tanks, artillery and hundreds of troops from their most advanced positions in Georgia on Friday, saying it had fulfilled all obligations under a French-brokered peace agreement.

But Russian troops still control access to the western port of Poti, south of the Moscow-backed rebel region of Abkhazia, and have established other checkpoints around South Ossetia, where the conflict began.

Acting as head of the EU, French President Nicolas Sarkozy telephoned his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday and asked him to withdraw his forces from a road linking Poti to Senaki in western Georgia.

Sarkozy and Medvedev agreed on the need for an “international mechanism” in the area south of South Ossetia, a French statement said.

The Kremlin said it was ready to cooperate with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor a buffer zone near South Ossetia, but it said there had been no discussion about replacing Russian troops by international monitors.

”During the telephone conversation between the Russian and French presidents, there was no discussion about replacing Russian peacekeeping troops by an OSCE mission in the buffer zone,” a Kremlin spokesman said.

The West sees the presence of OSCE monitors as critical to ensuring the success of the ceasefire.

The vague six-point peace plan has been interpreted differently by Russia and the West, with Russian claiming it has the right to leave peacekeepers deep inside Georgia.

France, Britain, the US, NATO and other Western powers have demanded Russia pull back further.

Russian troops were holding at least six positions in an 80km area around the Black Sea port city of Poti yesterday.

A senior Georgian official said Russian forces were also maintaining eight positions around the separatist region of South Ossetia in central Georgia, including one a few kilometers from Gori on the main road into the region.

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