GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian troops and armor deployed around three Georgian towns on Thursday, as international pressure mounted on Moscow over its continuing occupation of parts of Georgia.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “extremely concerned” about the humanitarian situation in Georgia and called for a halt to lawlessness.
In the key Georgian town of Gori, west of the capital Tbilisi, correspondents saw signs of looting which locals blamed on militias from the neighboring province of South Ossetia, where the conflict erupted a week ago.
Russian armed forces have occupied parts of Georgia since repelling a Georgian attack last week on the tiny pro-Russian separatist territory of South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi’s control in the 1990s.
Shops had been smashed up in Gori and there were very few parked cars. “They were stealing cars and breaking into shops,” Vasily, 72, said. “They spoke Ossetian.”
The Russians have pledged to stop looting but men wearing an assortment of camouflaged uniforms stole cars from journalists and from the United Nations on Thursday and a hidden sniper shot at a female Georgian television correspondent, grazing her arm.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russia was behind a “deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing”.
“I can prove it with the international organizations already bringing testimony to what I’m saying,” he said in English at a briefing for foreign media.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the architect of a two-day old ceasefire, said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would visit Tbilisi on Friday to secure Georgia’s signature to a peace deal which would “consolidate” the halt to fighting.
“If tomorrow Mr Saakashvili signs the document that we have negotiated with (Russian President) Mr Medvedev, then the withdrawal of Russian troops can begin,” Sarkozy said.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “We can forget about talks on Georgia’s territorial integrity because it’s impossible to force South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree that they can be returned into Georgia’s fold by force”.
In a sharp warning, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington’s relationship with Russia could be “adversely affected for years to come” unless the Kremlin rethought its “aggressive posture” in Georgia, a close U.S. ally.
“This is going to be a defining crisis in the United States-Russian relationship. The danger is that neither side feels it can back down,” said Michael Cox, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
“We may only be at the beginning of this crisis rather than at the end of it.”
In a move likely to sour further Russia’s ties with the U.S., Poland finally agreed on Thursday to host elements of a U.S. global anti-missile system on its land after Washington improved the terms of the deal amid the Georgia crisis.
Russia views the planned U.S. anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe as a threat to its national security.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday to urge Moscow to embrace diplomacy in its showdown with Georgia to avoid a serious rift with the West.
Widening the ramifications of the conflict, Russia’s neighbor Ukraine announced it would enforce a presidential decree demanding that warships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet based at a Ukrainian port get advance permission before putting to sea or returning.
That decision drew an angry response from Moscow, with the Russian General Staff dismissing it as “illegitimate” and insisting the Russian fleet would only obey orders from its commander-in-chief in the Kremlin.
Reuters witnesses on Thursday saw Russian troops in the key central Georgian town of Gori and outside the western town of Zugdidi.
“We have no idea what they are doing there ... why such a heavy force,” Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said during a teleconference. “One explanation could be that they are just trying to battle the civilian population.”
Residents in the Black Sea port of Poti saw a Russian incursion.
The Russian General Staff said it was legitimate for “Russian peacekeepers” to be in Poti and for what it termed reconnaissance parties to be in Gori, two days after Russia signed up to a French-led peace plan to stop the fighting.
The peace agreement brokered by Sarkozy contains a clause allowing Moscow’s forces “to implement additional security measures” while awaiting international monitors.
The conflict has spooked oil markets, reliant on pipelines through the Caucasus for Caspian oil, and alarmed the West, which fears it could spiral out of control.
In Georgia, a second U.S. military plane arrived, bringing in aid in a show of American support. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has criticized the United States for failing to act strongly enough to help him.
But the Russian General Staff’s deputy chief, Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, criticized the U.S. airlift to Georgia announced by Bush.
“We have information that American military-transport aviation say they are delivering a certain humanitarian cargo to Tbilisi airport, though they said we had bombed the airport two days ago,” he said.
“Let’s ask them: Will they invite you (the media) to check whether it is humanitarian or not?... What is in it (the cargo) in reality?...It is of major concern to Russians.”
Earlier in the day, Russian commanders said they were handing over control of Gori, 60 km (35 miles) east of the capital Tbilisi and close to Georgia’s main east-west highway. But Georgian officials later said it appeared the handover had been delayed.
In the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, a small oil terminal, witnesses said Russian tanks had rolled in on Thursday morning, accompanying trucks carrying troops to the port area.
In the western Georgian town of Zugdidi, not far from the second separatist region of Abkhazia, a Reuters photographer saw a column of more than 100 Russian military vehicles, including 40 armored vehicles, massed two km (1.5 miles) from the town centre. Their purpose was unclear.
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Additional reporting by Melissa Akin, Dmitry Zhdannikov, Guy Faulconbridge and Simon Shuster in Moscow, James Kilner and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Sue Pleming and Richard Cowan in Washington, writing by Michael Stott, editing by Ralph Boulton