POTI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgia accused Russian forces of entering the oil shipment port of Poti on the Black Sea on Tuesday and detaining 20 Georgian police officers.
“They entered the civilian port and kicked everyone out,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili. “The Russians arrested the port security staff, 20 of them. They are police officers,” he said.
In Moscow, the General Staff confirmed at a daily briefing that its forces had arrested 20 “heavily armed” Georgians in Poti. It said they were traveling in five Hummer vehicles and suggested they posed a security risk.
A Reuters cameraman saw several men blindfolded and placed in Russian armored personnel carriers (APCs), which then headed east to the town of Senaki.
The cameraman counted around 20 APCs. He could not confirm whether the detained men were police officers. He later reported a series of explosions from a military base at Senaki that sent plumes of smoke into the sky.
Senaki and Poti, which is a key gateway for goods bound for the Caucasus states of Azerbaijan and Armenia and for Central Asia, are hundreds of km (miles) from the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia at the heart of the current conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow.
Georgians regard the Russian military presence in places such as Poti as evidence that Moscow is not only trying to protect South Ossetia, as it claims, but is also intent on pulverising their country’s economy and infrastructure.
On Saturday, witnesses saw Russian forces carry off crates and equipment in trucks and helicopters from Poti’s port and nearby airport.
Russian forces have also been dismantling military installations and arms dumps deep inside Georgian territory.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Reuters cameraman said he saw Russian forces also loot a Georgian government residence in the western town of Zugdidi, northeast of Poti near the border with Abkhazia, another separatist Georgian region backed by Moscow.
A column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles left the central Georgian city of Gori on Tuesday in what Russian officials said was the start of a general pull-back demanded by the United States and its NATO allies.
It was not immediately clear if other Russian units were also pulling out of their positions inside Georgia.
Russia launched air strikes and rolled tanks and troops across its southern border into Georgia on August 7 to repel a Georgian military offensive to retake the capital of pro-Moscow South Ossetia.
Additional reporting by Matt Robinson; Editing by Gareth Jones and Ralph Boulton