Russian convoy moves deeper inside Georgia: witness

IGOETI, Georgia (Reuters) - A Russian military convoy advanced to a village 45 km (30 miles) from Tbilisi on Friday, in the deepest incursion since conflict with Georgia erupted last week.

A Russian serviceman reads next to a tank in Gori near South Ossetia, August 15, 2008. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

The advance of about 17 armored personnel carriers (APCs) and about 200 soldiers coincided with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to secure Georgia’s signature on a French-brokered peace plan to end the fighting.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said tanks had also advanced on another two towns -- Khashari and Borjomi -- in central Georgia, but the information could not be independently verified.

In the movement witnessed by Reuters, initially 10 APCs moved along the main highway from the Russian-occupied town of Gori, 25 km (15 miles) from breakaway South Ossetia, before stopping in the village of Igoeti. They were joined around two hours later be another seven, and most headed down side roads.

The exact reason for their presence was not clear.

At a news conference after Saakashvili signed the agreement, Rice called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces.

Moscow declared a halt on Tuesday to military action but said it was securing Georgian military installations and abandoned arms dumps.


A Russian commander arrived in Igoeti and said the troop movement was not aggressive.

Asked the purpose of the movement, Russian Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov told reporters:

“To create peace, to increase the separation between the forces, and to stop not the war between our armed forces and Georgia’s but between Georgian and Ossetian civilians. And to stop the war between bandits.”

Saakashvili said Russian troop movements inside Georgia were of “great concern”.

“We now have an increasing area of Russian occupation of our territory,” he told a news conference.

The vehicles advanced unimpeded by Georgian police and army stationed along the road. A Reuters correspondent saw a military ambulance, snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

The convoy was initially shadowed by three low-flying Russian combat helicopters, which later left.

Russian troops this week pushed out of South Ossetia as far as Gori, following a counter-offensive to drive out Georgian forces who had tried to recapture the separatist South Ossetia region.

On Thursday, Russian troops were spotted in Gori, the Black Sea port of Poti and the western town of Zugdidi, which lies near another breakaway region, Abkhazia.

Georgia has been calling for Russian troops to pull back from Gori, saying that irregular militias from over the border in Russia have moved in behind them and are looting and burning Georgian villages.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze, writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Charles Dick