Russian feint toward Tbilisi shows truce fragile

ROAD TO TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ Fifty battered Russian army trucks and armored personnel carriers roared without warning down the highway toward the country’s capital, making it clear that a day-old cease-fire will not keep Russia from moving freely through Georgia.

“Come with us, beauty, we’re going to Tbilisi!” one of the soldiers bellowed at a photographer in a sleeveless shirt along the road. Other troops grinned and brandished their weapons, and one hung his bare feet out the back of a truck. Another, a machine gunner riding atop an armored vehicle, wore a bandanna and a black T-shirt with the word “Russia” emblazoned in the red, blue and white colors of the national flag.

Asked from the side of the road, the soldiers shouted that their destination was Tbilisi _ “With no detours,” one said. But then they veered abruptly into a field about an hour’s drive from the capital and camped conspicuously within sight of the road before the sun went down.

The message was hard to miss: The Russian military is still the landlord in swaths of Georgia, and its forces remain in easy striking distance of the country’s capital.

Meanwhile, 10 kilometers (6 miles) down the road and well inside Georgia, a small contingent of subdued and edgy Georgian troops gathered and began preparing a defense line _ an acknowledgment that much of their country is still under Russian control. Two vintage cannons were wheeled into position facing in the direction of the Russians. Nearby, crack troops equipped with pistols, Kalashnikovs and anti-tank rockets waited by their olive-drab pickup trucks. One of them played with a puppy.

Other Georgian units were visible along the road closer to the capital. But nearly the only people traveling toward Tbilisi were refugees, a steady trickle of Georgians fleeing the front line area in overloaded cars, trucks and tractor-pulled wagons. In one Soviet-era car were eight people, including a dejected mother holding a baby in the front seat. The back door of a small blue van swung open to reveal at least a dozen people crowded inside.

One army surplus truck ran out of gas behind the Georgian lines, and its passengers waited alongside the road. One woman who identified herself only as Nina, 57, said she fled her village, Karaleti, when it was assaulted and torched by the Russians earlier in the day. Her account could not be independently confirmed.

She had spent the days of fighting hiding in a basement, she said, and did not know where her two daughters were, though she believed they had escaped.

“I’m proud that I am Georgian, and they hate us because we are Georgian,” she said.

Before the surprise arrival of the Russian convoy, Georgians were debating whether Russian tanks were indeed in the center of the town of Gori, as some reports suggested _ a violation of the cease-fire brokered Tuesday that demands a full withdrawal to pre-fighting lines. Gori, which has largely been abandoned, is a Georgian town that borders the breakaway territory of South Ossetia.

The tanks were indeed in the town, but the debate was rendered irrelevant when the first armored vehicle rolled down from the direction of Gori, pushing beyond the town and farther into Georgia.

The vehicle was followed by trucks carrying equipment, military ambulances, troop transports and two truck-mounted cannon. The soldiers clearly feared no resistance, and many grinned and waved as they drove by.

Some of the troops had made a halfhearted attempt at camouflage, decking their vehicles with foliage. But the convoy was hardly an invasion force, made up mainly of support vehicles and carrying perhaps 100 combat troops and an equal number of medics, drivers and other rear-echelon personnel.

At the end of the convoy drove a beat-up van flying a Russian flag and carrying five militiamen in ragtag uniforms and armed with Kalashnikovs _ South Ossetian irregulars who had attached themselves to the Russian troops. One of them wore a black mask. Earlier in the day, a BBC reporter in Gori reported that the South Ossetian militiamen were looting houses in the town.

When the Russians turned left onto a dirt trail and headed for their encampment, the South Ossetians spent a few minutes posing with their rifles before boarding their van and heading jubilantly back in the direction of Gori.

By Matti Friedman, Aug 14, 2008

Copyright 2008 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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