President George W. Bush said the U.S. military will lead a humanitarian aid effort to Georgia and that he expects Russia to withdraw all troops sent into the country since fighting started.
"We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including sea ports, airports, roads and airspace remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit," Bush told reporters in Washington today. U.S. air and naval forces will help to deliver aid, he said.
By using the military to deliver humanitarian relief and dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Tbilisi, Bush is signaling the U.S. is firmly committed to Georgia and to exerting its own influence in the region, said Cliff Kupchan of New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.
The moves are "a symbolic shot across the bow that 'enough's enough,"' Kupchan said. "It's as much pushback with hardware as the U.S. can, or should, muster at this point."
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said sending U.S. navy ships to the region wouldn't be "the best way" to deliver humanitarian aid." Russia is ready for "consultations" with the U.S. on the Georgian aid effort, he said in comments broadcast on CNN.
Aid Plane Arrives
The first of the C-17 cargo planes carrying relief supplies has landed in Tbilisi, White House press secretary Dana Perino said. A second flight is scheduled to land tomorrow.
As the situation continues to evolve, Perino said the president is postponing the start of his vacation for "a couple of days." He was scheduled to leave for his Texas ranch tomorrow morning.
Bush made his statement one day after Georgia and Russia agreed to a European Union-brokered peace plan to end five days of fighting. EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to push the peace deal forward. The 27-nation bloc may send military personnel to monitor the cease-fire, said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country brokered the accord.
The U.S. leader said he directed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to head the humanitarian effort. "This mission will be vigorous and ongoing," he said. Bush said Rice will talk with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris before traveling to Georgia.
"To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis," Bush said.
Georgia accused Russia of sending troops beyond the South Ossetia conflict zone in violation of the cease-fire. A Russian official denied the claim, saying the troops are eliminating Georgia's ability to renew attacks.
Georgian Security Council chief Kakha Lomaia said a column of Russian troops may be moving from the city of Gori toward the Uplistsikhe military base, which Georgian forces abandoned earlier in the conflict. The Russians are advancing "well beyond the conflict zone," he said today. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russia is breaking the truce.
Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian troops near South Ossetia are "demilitarizing" the area to prevent Georgia from attacking again. Russian forces seized Georgian tanks at a military facility outside Gori and are moving them to another location, he said.
Russian deputy chief of the General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Russian troops stopped fighting at 3 p.m. yesterday, after President Dmitry Medvedev called off military operations. He said the Russian mission includes weakening Georgia's military so that it "can't even think about repeating its attempts to attack this or that territory."
When Medvedev called off Russia's incursion into Georgia, he ordered the military to destroy any "pockets of resistance" it encounters.
Lomaia said South Ossetians and Cossacks are looting the city of Gori, near the conflict zone. The Kremlin declined immediate comment, saying it needed to investigate the claim.
Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said Russian tanks in the city of Gori this morning destroyed military facilities. Nogovitsyn said no tanks were in Gori and that Russian forces have observed the cease-fire since 3 p.m. yesterday. A Russian Foreign Ministry official said no Russian troops are in the city. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the country's forces will withdraw only after Georgian troops return to their barracks.
Nogovitsyn said 74 Russian soldiers died in the fighting and 171 were wounded. Nineteen soldiers are missing in action, he said. Temur Iakobashvili, Georgia's minister for reintegration issues, said 175 of the country's soldiers died. Saakashvili said 180,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.
Early this morning, Sarkozy said Georgia agreed to a six- point plan to end fighting after the former Soviet republic's military was routed by Russia in the five-day conflict.
Medvedev yesterday ordered a halt to the military campaign, which was sparked by fighting between Georgia and South Ossetia on Aug. 7. Saakashvili said Russia launched a "well-planned invasion" of Georgia the next day. Nogovitsyn said Georgia planned its incursion into South Ossetia in advance and expected to meet resistance only from Ossetian forces and the 588 Russian peacekeepers deployed in the region.
The war, Russia's first major foreign offensive since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has further strained relations between the U.S., which considers Georgia one of its closest allies in the region, and its former Cold War foe.
The plan calls for the withdrawal of Georgian and Russian troops, renunciation of the use of force, an end to all military operations and a commitment to making humanitarian aid freely available in the conflict zone.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgian control in wars in the early 1990s and Russian forces have been stationed as peacekeepers in the regions under a Commonwealth of Independent States mandate. Most people living in both regions have Russian passports. Saakashvili yesterday said Georgia is quitting the CIS, a loose association of all former Soviet republics except the three Baltic states.
Georgia will be unable to reunify its territory a long way into the future, sabotaging its bid for NATO membership, Alexander Rahr, head of the Russia-Eurasia program at Berlin's German Council on Foreign Relations, said in an N24 television interview.
"Georgia's chances of joining NATO are going to be delayed for many, many years," said Rahr.
The West sees Georgia as a key ally in the region, in part because it has a pipeline that carries Caspian Sea crude oil to Western markets, bypassing Russia. U.S. President George W. Bush backs Georgia's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Russia views as a security threat.
NATO should affirm the potential of Georgia and Ukraine to become alliance members in the face of the Russian incursion, said U.S. government officials who spoke to reporters in Washington yesterday on condition they not be identified.
Medvedev declared a day of mourning for today, ordering state flags to be flown at half-mast and canceling entertainment programs on radio, television and in theaters. Georgia also declared a period of mourning.
Russian officials say about 2,000 people died in South Ossetia during the fighting.