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CONFLICT IN CAUCASUS: RUSSIAN PRESENCE CONTINUES

Key Georgia rail bridge is destroyed

Russia denies being behind the attack. Its troops set up strategic posts along the main road, signaling that they may stay awhile.

August 17, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

IGOETI, GEORGIA — Even as Russia signed a cease-fire agreement with Georgia on Saturday, its troops destroyed a key railroad bridge that links the Caucasus region to the Black Sea coast, cutting off east-west transportation routes through the country, the Georgian Foreign Ministry announced.

Russia denied blowing up the bridge, calling the charge "another unverified allegation" in the wake of large-scale fighting over a pro-Moscow separatist republic. A Los Angeles Times photographer traveling in the area Saturday saw explosives attached to the underbelly of a nearby railroad bridge, but it was still intact.

The blast in the Kaspi region caused immediate economic chaos, forcing Azerbaijan to suspend crude oil shipments to the Black Sea ports, and stranding 72 Armenia-bound freight cars in Georgia, Interfax news agency reported.

The bridge attack came as Russian soldiers dug in at strategic posts along the country's main roadway, setting up gun positions, camouflaging their hardware with tree branches and hiking into the sunburned hills. Russian soldiers interviewed between the garrison town of Gori and the capital, Tbilisi, said they had been deployed to protect the road.

Tanks flying Russian flags were parked in this small town, about 25 miles from the capital, during most of the day. A Russian tank convoy that streamed from Gori to Igoeti on Saturday afternoon left fields burning in its wake, apparently set on fire by Russian troops.

By late afternoon, the Russian tanks had fallen back, but were still holding positions at the edge of the nearby Lekhura River.

Russia has appeared to be taunting Georgia, sending tank columns roaring toward the capital only to turn them back again. But despite the constant commotion of redeployment, the trend has been a creeping entrenchment that has engulfed strategically crucial Gori and moved steadily in on the capital, creating a swath of nearly abandoned towns and villages.

Russia's aggressive troop movements call into question its commitment to a cease-fire, Georgian and international officials said Saturday.

"I don't see why they signed it if they don't want to implement it," said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, who was trying to make his way from Tbilisi to Gori to evaluate the state of the cease-fire.

But Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, seemed unfazed, telling reporters that the Russian troops may stay in Georgia for some time to come.

The departure of Russian troops would come gradually, and would depend upon "extra security measures" for Russia's soldiers in Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia, Lavrov said. Asked how long the withdrawal would take, he replied, "As much as is needed," Interfax reported.

"This does not depend on us alone because we are constantly coming up against some problems on the Georgian side," he said. "Everything depends on how effectively and quickly these problems are solved."

Last week's fighting has increased tensions between Russia and the West, and especially soured relations between Moscow and Washington to a degree not seen since the Cold War.

The mutual frustration is expected to rise as Russia and the United States square off diplomatically over the fate of South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway republic, Abkhazia.

Washington has called on Russia to respect Georgia's borders and territorial integrity. Moscow, however, has vowed to back the republics' drive for independence, which critics regard as a veiled annexation of the former Soviet regions, both of which border Russia.

President Bush said Saturday that Russia could not claim the republics. "There is no room for debate on this matter," he said.

A day earlier, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had vowed that Georgia would never get back its breakaway regions.

"Unfortunately, after what has happened it is unlikely that the Ossetians and the Abkhazians will be able to live in one state together with the Georgians," Medvedev said Friday at a news conference in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

For the time being, Russia's troop movements in Georgia are being closely scrutinized for hints of Moscow's intentions.

"If they violate their own agreement, that has even more serious consequences," said Richard Holbrooke, a prominent former U.S. diplomat now in Georgia. "Each hour, each day, is a test."

In the cool shade of an acacia tree, the elders from the tiny roadside farming village of Natareti clumped miserably around a Russian tank. The men had approached the Russian troops not only to inquire how long they would stay, but also because they were hungry, they said plaintively.

"We are very scared. We don't know what to do," said Suliko Usradze, a 60-year-old farmer. "We can stand the fear, but not the hunger."

The Russian occupation has interrupted their harvest. They had no fuel for the tractors, and the soldiers had taken over their farmlands. They were out of bread and flour. They had nothing left to eat but potatoes.

The Russian troops had given them some canned food, the villagers said sheepishly.

"Let them take Saakashvili with them," griped Giorgi Aptsiauri, another white-haired farmer, referring to the Georgian president. "Look what condition we're in! If he steps down, the Russians will stop everything."

--

megan.stack@latimes.com

Times photographer Michael Robinson Chavez contributed to this report from Kaspi, Georgia.

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