TBILISI (Reuters) - U.S. military planes began delivering aid to Georgia as Washington stepped up support for a shaky ceasefire with Russian troops around the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was set to arrive in Tbilisi on Wednesday after talks in Paris. Rice’s trip comes six days into a conflict that has shifted from artillery, tank and gun battles at the weekend to increasingly sharp diplomatic and political exchanges out of Washington, Moscow and Tbilisi.
U.S. President George Bush, flanked by Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the Rose Garden, demanded Moscow end the crisis, abide by an agreed ceasefire and withdraw Russian troops sent into Georgia after fighting began last Thursday.
“The United States of America stands with the democratically-elected government of Georgia. We insist that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected,” Bush told reporters at the White House.
Moscow has denied violating a ceasefire and rejected claims its troops and armor had advanced on Tbilisi or looted the key town of Gori, 60km (35 miles) west of the capital and just south across the Kura river from South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali.
Speaking in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, told by Rice that Russian servicemen were failing to prevent looting by irregular militias in Gori, said such actions would not be tolerated.
“I said from the very beginning that if any such facts prove true, we will react in the most serious way...The peaceful population should be protected. We are investigating all these reports and will not allow any such actions,” Lavrov said.
Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based organization with staff in Georgia, said its onsite researchers had witnessed looting of ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia, the rebel province at the heart of the current conflict.
Lavrov said the United States needed to choose between partnership with Moscow or the Georgian leadership, which he characterized as a “virtual project” of the Bush administration.
Rice bristled when asked about Lavrov’s comments.
“Georgia is a democratic government in the caucasus that has elected leaders. To call it a project of anyplace, of anybody, perhaps belies more about what Russia thinks about its neighbors that what it thinks about U.S. policy,” Rice said.
Bush, who spoke with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili earlier in the day, ordered humanitarian supplies to be delivered to Tbilisi on U.S. military aircraft.
A U.S. C-17 military aircraft carrying supplies arrived in Georgia and a second flight was planned for Thursday.
Bush said the United States expected Russia to allow humanitarian supplies into Georgia and ensure that all lines of communication and transport remain open.
Speaking in Tbilisi, Saakashvili said Bush’s pledge meant Georgian ports and airports would be taken under U.S. military control — a claim swiftly denied by the Pentagon.
The fighting in the Caucasus, an important transit for Caspian oil, has unnerved the United States, NATO and the European Union and rattled investors.
Russia says 1,600 civilians died when Georgia attacked South Ossetia, though the figure has not been independently verified. Moscow’s general Staff says it lost 74 soldiers in the fighting, with 171 wounded and 19 missing.
Tbilisi puts deaths on its side at over 175, with hundreds injured. That figure does not include South Ossetia.
Moscow announced an emergency aid package for South Ossetia, with Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin pledging 10 billion roubles ($414 million) to rebuild the shattered region.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, Dmitry Solovyov in Vladikavkaz, Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow , writing by Chris Baldwin, editing by Ralph Boulton