TBILISI, August 15 – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed for Georgia on Friday in a show of support for its pro-western government as it struggled to regain control of much of the country from Russian troops after a ceasefire.
The United States has warned Russia that ties could be "adversely affected" for years by Russia’s military offensive in Georgia, sparked by a Georgian move to take back control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia. But Washington has ruled out any US military action.
Georgian authorities negotiated with Russian commanders for the handover of the city of Gori where Russian troops have remained. Georgia has already accused the Russian military of seeking to destroy Gori and other installations.
The Georgian interior ministry said Thursday about 130 Russian armoured vehicles had moved deeper into the west of Georgia, heading in the direction of Kutaisi city before stopping near the town of Senaki.
The ministry said Russian forces were "destroying" Gori, the Georgian city closest to disputed South Ossetia, and demolishing military facilities in the Black Sea port of Poti.
Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili said the Russian army was rolling through Georgia with "thousands and thousands of irregulars" whom he said were raping and looting.
"This army travels around with irregulars, travels around with marauders, travels around with rapists, travels around with arsonists, robbers and with looters," Saakashvili told foreign news media.
He said the Russian army controlled about a third of his country.
On Friday, a week after thousands of Russian troops entered South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, Rice left France for Georgia in hopes of boosting a truce brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"It is time for this crisis to be over," Rice said Thursday after meeting Sarkozy in the south of France. She urged Moscow and Tbilisi to sign the truce "without delay."
A US State Department official said Rice would bring Tbilisi "clarifying explanations" in the six-point agreement, including the questions of territorial integrity and "residual security arrangements that the Russians would be able to maintain."
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that US-Russia ties could be "adversely affected" for years unless Moscow adjusted its "aggressive posture and actions".
Highlighting the "profound implications" for the entire US-Russia security relationship, Gates said Russia would have to pay "some consequences" for its attacks on Georgia.
Russia’s ambassador at the United Nations sounded upbeat about early approval by the UN Security Council of a new draft resolution to formalise the ceasefire accord.
The Russian envoy said bargaining was under way on a revised version which would "clearly and accurately repeat what is said" in the six-point deal reached by Sarkozy and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow Tuesday.
A second US military cargo plane filled with humanitarian supplies arrived in Tbilisi on Thursday, as UN officials and aid organisations complained of a lack of access to affected areas.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed serious concern and underlined the "critical importance of safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian actors to all conflict-affected areas."
Latest estimates by the Georgian and Russian governments put the number of displaced people in the conflict region at nearly 115,000.
Armed gunmen held up UN workers in the flashpoint town of Gori on Thursday and stole their vehicles.
Faced with Russian tanks and armoured vehicles, Georgian troops pulled back Thursday to positions along the road leading into Gori, as expectations that the Russian military would pull out from the strategic city proved premature.