Russian tanks in Georgia's Poti - witnesses

Thu Aug 14, 2008 7:25am EDT

(Updates with details, background)

POTI, Georgia, Aug 14 (Reuters) - Russian tanks rolled into the Georgian port town of Poti on Thursday, accompanying trucks carrying troops to the port, witnesses said, but Russia denied its forces were there.

"Just a few minutes ago they (Russians) entered Poti in tanks," a Poti shipping agent, Nikoloz Gogoli, said by telephone at about 0900 GMT. "Some of the guys have blue signs, badges, which means they should be peacekeepers."

Vakhtang Tavberidze, acting harbourmaster in the port of Poti, said Russian peacekeepers had arrived at the military port accompanied by military vehicles, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, and removed unidentified equipment.

"Yesterday they came to the commercial port, but today they only came to the military port, to the coast guard area," Tavberidze said by telephone. "They took away some equipment."

"This is looting," he added. "People are afraid to go in there. It might be mined."

Asked about the reports, Russia's deputy chief of the general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said: "There are no Russian armour or troops in the city of Poti now."

Nogovitsyn offered no further comment.

Gogoli said the tanks did not enter the port and were moving in the direction of an old military base.

Guards at the port said the tanks were accompanying troop trucks and moved away from the port once the trucks had parked inside. One guard said a truck was carrying around 20 troops and identified them as peacekeepers.

A Reuters staff photographer on the scene was barred from entering the port.

Earlier, Tavberidze said that Russian troops sank six Georgian cutters stored at Poti on Wednesday. He said no one was hurt.

Gogoli and Tavberidze said the cutters, old military boats, were not fired on from sea or air. Russian troops warned bystanders of their plans, Gogoli said.

"I think what they did was blow them up with some explosives," he said.

Russia denied the previous day that its troops had entered Poti. (Reporting by Umit Bektas in Poti and Melissa Akin in Moscow)