BATUMI, Georgia (Reuters) - The first U.S. warship to bring aid to Georgia arrived in the country’s main Black Sea port of Batumi on Sunday, in a gesture of support for the ex-Soviet republic in its conflict with Russia.
The USS McFaul, a guided missile destroyer, is loaded with humanitarian aid including bottled water, blankets, hygiene kits and baby food for the tens of thousands displaced by the confrontation that erupted on August 7-8 over Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region.
The Stars and Stripes flying from its stern, the McFaul dropped anchor in waters just off Batumi, 80 km (50 miles) south of the small oil shipment port of Poti, where Russian soldiers have been digging in for days.
The Russian Defense Staff said on Saturday its troops would continue to patrol Poti, after the Russian military pushed deep into Georgia proper this month on the heels of retreating Georgian forces.
Poti lies outside a “buffer zone” where Russia plans to station peacekeepers indefinitely.
Washington has been Tbilisi’s strongest ally in its confrontation with Moscow, which blew up when Russia rolled troops and tanks over its southern border to repel a Georgian offensive to retake the South Ossetian capital from pro-Moscow separatists.
Hundreds have been killed and about 80,000 displaced.
The McFaul’s arrival puts the U.S. Navy in close proximity to Russia’s Black Sea fleet based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.
The Fleet’s flagship, Moskva, followed two smaller ships back to base on Saturday having patrolled waters off the coast of Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia.
“Other Black Sea fleet ships dispatched to the Abkhazian coast continue carrying out their task of ensuring security, safety of sea traffic and maintaining a favorable operative situation near the Abkhazian coast,” chief Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo told Russian news agencies late on Saturday.
Asked about the arrival of U.S. warships, he said: “The Russian Navy is aware of the arrival of the NATO ships. Black Sea ships will continue carrying out their duties of ensuring safety of sea traffic near the Abkhazian coast.”
Two other U.S. ships are due to follow the McFaul. The United States has already delivered aid by military cargo plane.
Additional reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Giles Elgood