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Warship brings aid to Georgia

Monday, August 25, 2008

ABOARD USS McFAUL -- A U.S. Navy destroyer loaded with humanitarian aid reached Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi on Sunday, bringing baby food, bottled water and a message of support for an embattled ally.

Before the warship arrived, a Russian general suggested U.S. ships moving across the Black Sea would worsen tensions already driven to a post-Cold War high by a short but intense war between Russia and Georgia.

"The population of Georgia will feel more safe from today from the Russian aggression," Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili said on the aft missile deck of the McFaul after greeting U.S. Navy officers in crisp white uniforms on shore.

"They will feel safe not because the destroyer is here but because they will feel they are not alone facing the Russian aggression," he said.

Local children offered the Americans wine and flowers.

In Europe, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would convene a special meeting of European Union leaders over the crisis as Russia ignored Western accusations it has fallen short of its commitment to withdraw forces from its smaller neighbor.

The war erupted Aug. 7 as Georgia launched a massive artillery barrage targeting the Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia. Russian forces repelled the offensive and drove deep into Georgia, taking crucial positions across the small former Soviet republic.

Russia pulled the bulk of its troops and tanks out Friday under a cease-fire brokered by Sarkozy, but built up its forces in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region. They also left other military posts at locations inside Georgia proper.

The U.S. and EU say both those moves violated Russia's commitments.

NATO halted operations with Russia, demanding a fuller withdrawal, and Moscow responded by freezing military contacts with the alliance -- its Cold War foe whose eastward expansion has angered a resurgent Russia.

The guided missile cruiser USS McFaul, carrying about 55 tons of humanitarian aid, is the first of three American ships scheduled to arrive this week. It brought baby food, diapers, bottled water, milk and hygiene products.

Sailors in a chain on deck passed the supplies up from the hold to be lifted by a crane for transport to shore.

The commander of the task force carrying aid to Georgia by ship, Navy Capt. John Moore, downplayed the significance of a destroyer bringing aid.

"We really are here on a humanitarian mission," he said.

The McFaul, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, is outfitted with an array of weaponry, including Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, and a sophisticated radar system. For security reasons the Navy does not say whether ships are carrying nuclear weapons, but they usually do not.

The deputy chief of Russia's general staff suggested that the arrival of U.S. and other NATO ships in the Black Sea would increase tensions. Russia shares the sea with NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria as well as Georgia and Ukraine, whose pro-Western presidents are leading drives for NATO membership.

"I don't think such a buildup will foster the stabilization of the atmosphere in the region," Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn as saying Saturday.

A U.S. official said the American ship anchored in Batumi, Georgia's main oil port on the Black Sea, because of concerns about damage to the Georgian port of Poti -- not because Poti is closer to Russian forces in Abkhazia and Georgia proper.

Russian troops still hold positions near Poti, and Georgian port officials say radar, Coast Guard ships and other port facilities were extensively damaged by Russian forces. AP journalists there have reported on Russians looting the area.

An AP television cameraman and his Georgian driver were treated roughly and briefly detained Sunday by Russian troops outside Poti as he shot video of Russian positions.

Adding to the tension, South Ossetian officials claimed that Georgia was building up military forces in an area along the edge of the battered region and had fired sporadically at villages overnight.

As Moscow's military moved to redraw de facto borders on the ground, Russia's parliament on Monday was planning to consider renewed requests from South Ossetia and Abkhazia for recognition of their claims of independence from Georgia.

Georgia claims Russia wants to annex the regions.

In other developments, a few miles west of the central city of Gori a fire tore through an oil train after an explosion, sending plumes of black smoke into the air. The cause was not clear.

Several Georgian officials said they suspected the train hit a land mine and blamed Russian forces, who just withdrew from the area. Later, one official suggested the fire could be linked to discarded munitions in the area.

Georgia straddles a key westward route for oil from Azerbaijan and other Caspian Sea nations including Kazakhstan, giving it added strategic importance as the U.S. and the EU seek to decrease Russia's dominance of oil and gas exports from the former Soviet Union.


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