The flagship of the US Navy’s Mediterranean fleet has anchored outside this key Georgian port, which is still partly occupied by hundreds of Russian troops, defiantly delivering humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged US ally in a mission that has angered Moscow.
The USS Mount Whitney was the first Navy ship to travel to Poti since Georgia’s five-day war with Russia last month. The continued presence of Russian troops here has been a major point of friction between Russia and the West, which insists Moscow has failed to honor a deal to pull back to positions held before fighting broke out Aug. 7.
Out on the water on Friday, the Mount Whitney sat at anchor in choppy seas and a brisk wind as Navy officers escorted visitors around. One of two of Poti’s Russian camps was visible from the deck of the vessel. With binoculars, the blue flag of Russian forces could be seen flapping in the breeze.
Two US ships have already come and gone from Georgia carrying humanitarian aid, but they anchored at Batumi, to the south, a smaller port with no Russian military presence.
In a diplomatic counter-punch, Russia received support on Friday from six other former Soviet republics that issued a joint statement condemning Georgia for using force to try to retake control of South Ossetia.
The declaration by members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization — which links Russia with Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — also praised Russia for “helping peace and security” in the region.
However, the allies did not go as far as Russia and recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations. On Friday, Nicaragua became the only other nation to do that.
The Kremlin has watched the arrival of the Mount Whitney and other US warships carrying aid with deep suspicion. Russian officials said that US military assistance to Georgia in the past had encouraged it to launch the offensive in South Ossetia, and alleged that the US humanitarian shipments could be a cover for weapons deliveries.
US officials have dismissed those accusations and said the aid includes blankets and powered milk.
Traffic flowed freely past two Russian checkpoints on Friday.
Ketino Kebuchava, the owner of a small grocery store in Poti, welcomed the warship’s arrival.
“We are a small country and we need help,” he said. “We welcome anyone but the Russians. We want the Russians out of our city and out of our country.”
The Mount Whitney carried more than 17 tonnes of humanitarian supplies loaded on 40 pallets, all due to be offloaded yesterday, said Captain Owen Honors, who commands the vessel.
But the huge ship could have accommodated far more aid, suggesting that its mission was as much political as practical.
The ship will unload aid at Poti’s commercial port, right next door to a badly damaged naval base.