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Russia says Georgia can 'forget about' regaining provinces
TBILISI, Georgia -- The foreign minister of Russia said Thursday that Georgia could "forget about" getting back its two breakaway provinces, and the former Soviet republic remained on edge as Russia sent tank columns to search out and destroy Georgian military equipment.
Uncertainty about Russia's intentions and back-and-forth charges clouded the conflict two days after Russia and Georgia signaled acceptance of a French-brokered cease-fire, and a week after Georgia's crackdown on the two provinces drew a Russian military response.
Diplomats focused on finalizing a fragile cease-fire between the two nations and clear the way for Russian withdrawal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was heading for Georgia today to press the president to sign the deal.
Georgian officials accused Russia of sending a column of tanks and other armored vehicles toward Kutaisi, the second-largest city in Georgia, then said the convey stopped about 35 miles out.
"We have no idea what they're doing there, why the movement, where they're going," Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said in a telephone briefing. "One explanation could be they are trying to rattle the civilian population."
The U.S. said a move toward Kutaisi would be a matter of great concern, but two defense officials said the Pentagon did not detect any major movement by Russia troops or tanks. There was no immediate response from Russia itself.
"I think the world should think very carefully about what is going on here," Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said. "We need to stop everything that can be stopped now."
The Russian president met in the Kremlin with the leaders of the provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a clear sign Moscow could absorb the regions even though the territory is internationally recognized as being within Georgia's borders. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a blunt message to Georgia and the world that appeared to challenge President Bush's demand a day earlier that Russia must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.
"One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state."
The White House said Thursday that the U.S. position was unchanged and dismissed Lavrov's remark as bluster. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Russia was in danger of hurting relations with the U.S. "for years to come" but said he did not see "any prospect" for the use of American military force in Georgia.
As the military and diplomatic battles played out, relief planes swooped into Tbilisi with tons of supplies for the estimated 100,000 people uprooted by the fighting.
U.S. officials said their two planes carried cots, blankets, medicine and surgical supplies -- but the Russians insinuated that the United States, a Georgia ally, might have sent in military aid as well. U.S. officials rejected the claim.
Even as the relief rolled in, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the fighting and lawlessness was keeping it from reaching large parts of Georgia. In some places, relief officials were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees.
"This is too much. It is all too much," said Manana Karelidze, a 50-year-old retired accountant, who said she had waited for days at the Department of Refugees in the Georgian capital for registration and dry pasta. There were hundreds like her.
Russian troops spent the day searching selected cities, forests and fields for military equipment left behind by Georgian forces.
The Georgian ambassador to the United States, H.E. Vasil Sikharulidze, said Russia was employing "scorched-earth" tactics -- destroying Georgian commercial and military infrastructure and burning down religious sites beyond the conflict area of South Ossetia.
"What defenses does Georgia have? Because of the cease-fire agreement, which Russia has not honored, Georgian troops are being moved to organize a defensive line 10 kilometers (six miles) away from Tbilisi," he said.
Sikharulidze said an attack on Kutaisi would be a "catastrophe,"
On the edge of the strategically important city of Gori, Georgian soldiers pointed their weapons at Russian forces, and explosions and small-arms fire broke out in the distance.
Georgia claimed Russians had left the oil port city of Poti, but hours later some forces were still there.
Georgia also accused Russia of using short-range missiles in Poti and Gori, showing reporters purported images of shrapnel. There was no immediate response from Russia.
Russian and Georgian troops briefly patrolled Gori, but relations between the two sides broke down and the Georgians left. At least 20 explosions were heard later near Gori, along with small-arms fire.
It was not clear whether it was renewed fighting or the disposal of ordnance from a nearby Georgian military base. Russia said its troops were there to establish contact with the civilian administration and take over abandoned military depots.
Gori, battered by Russian bombing over the week, lies on Georgia's main east-west road only 60 miles west of Tbilisi. AP Television News footage showed Russian troops in and near Gori, and Georgia said it was checking the area for mines.
An AP Television News crew heard explosions at a military base in the western city of Senaki and were told by officials from both Russia and Georgia that the Russians were destroying ordnance. Dozens of Russian armored vehicles and troops later set up for the night under camouflage on the main road from Senaki north to Zugdidi.
The same APTN crew followed Russian troops on the outskirts of Poti as they searched a field and a forest at an old Soviet military base for possible Georgian military equipment.
Georgia's coast guard said Russian troops burned four Georgian patrol boats in Poti on Wednesday, then returned Thursday to loot and destroy the coast guard's radar and other equipment.
Another APTN camera crew saw Russian soldiers and military vehicles parked inside the Georgian government's elegant gated residence in the western town of Zugdidi. Some of the Russian soldiers wore blue peacekeeping helmets, others wore green camouflage helmets, all were heavily armed. Other Russian troops patrolled the city.
"We don't want them here. What we need is friendship and good relations with the Russian people," Ygor Gegenava, an elderly Zugdidi resident, told the APTN crew.
In London, BP PLC said it resumed pumping natural gas Thursday through one Georgia pipeline, but two oil pipelines in Georgia remain closed.
The Russian General Prosecutor's office said it had formally opened a genocide probe into Georgian treatment of South Ossetians. Georgia sued Russia in international court, alleging murder, rape and mass expulsions of Georgians in both provinces.
Correspondents David Nowak, Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili and Matti Friedman in Tbilisi, Georgia; Mansur Mirovalev in Tskhinvali, Georgia; Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow; Alexander Higgins in Geneva; Carley Petesch in New York; Matthew Lee traveling with Rice; and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.