Georgian officials charged Wednesday that Russian tanks had rolled into a strategic city and seized a military base inside Georgia in violation of a freshly brokered truce intended to end a conflict that had bloodied and battered the U.S. ally and uprooted tens of thousands of people, according to AP.
The accusation came less than 12 hours after Georgia`s president said he accepted a cease-fire plan brokered by France. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia was halting military action because Georgia had paid enough for its attack on South Ossetia, a separatist region along the Russian border with close ties to Moscow.
Still, Medvedev ordered the Russian defense minister at a televised Kremlin meeting to destroy any resistance or aggressive actions.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had gambled on a surprise attack late Thursday to regain control over his country`s pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia. Instead, Georgia suffered a punishing beating from Russian tanks and aircraft that has left the country with even less control over territory than it had before.
In the newest development, Georgia`s Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said that Russia had moved 50 tanks into Gori, a strategic town 15 miles from the border with South Ossetia, violating the new accord. The RIA-Novosti news agency cited the Russian Defense Ministry as denying the claim.
Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Zurab Gvenetadze said that Russian forces seized a military base on the outskirts of Gori, situated on Georgia`s only significant east-west road.
Russian troops previously had moved to near Gori, but were not in the city when the truce was announced, Georgian officials said.
Lomaia said that Russian troops also held onto ground in western Georgia, maintaining control of the town of Zugdidi where they seized the central police station and government buildings and saddling the main highway in the region. He said there had been no fresh clashes since the truce.
Georgia said Wednesday its troops have withdrawn from the only area of the breakaway province of Abkhazia they still occupied in the face of a Russian offensive there. Temur Yakobashvili, Georgian`s minister for reintegration, said that Georgian troops had left the area known as the Kodori Gorge.
A Russian general on Tuesday asserted the Georgians had been driven out but by separatist forces and not by the Russian military. On Tuesday, an Associated Press reporter witnessed about 135 Russian military vehicles heading toward the gorge.
Saakashvili said Russia`s aim all along was not to gain control of two disputed provinces but to "destroy" the smaller nation, a former Soviet state and current U.S. ally.
Russia accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in South Ossetia. The claim couldn`t be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died.
The overall death toll was expected to rise because large areas of Georgia were still too dangerous for journalists to enter and see the true scope of the damage.
Georgia`s Health Minister Alexander Kvitashvili said Wednesday that 175 Georgians had died in five days of air and ground attacks that left homes in smoldering ruins. He said many died Tuesday in a Russian raid of Gori just hours before Medvedev declared fighting halted.
An AP reporter also saw heavy damage inflicted to a Georgian village near Gori by a raid which the villagers said came only half-hour before Russian television broadcast Medvedev`s statement. Two men and a woman in the village of Ruisi, in undisputed Georgian territory just outside South Ossetia, were killed and another five were wounded.
"I always hide in the basement," said one villager, 70-year old Vakhtang Chkhekvadze, as he was picking away what was left of a window frame torn by an explosion. "But this time the explosion came so abruptly, I don`t remember what happened afterward."
The first relief flight from the U.N. refugee agency arrived in Georgia as the number of people uprooted by the conflict neared 100,000. Thousands streamed into the capital.
Those left behind in devastated regions of Georgia cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered nearly deserted cities.
Georgia, which is pushing for NATO membership, borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s. Both separatist provinces are backed by Russia, which appears open to absorbing them.
Medvedev said Georgia must allow the provinces to decide whether they want to remain part of Georgia. He said Russian peacekeepers would stay in both provinces, even as Saakashvili said his government will officially designate them as occupying forces.
Georgia sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and bypassing Russia. The British oil company BP shut down one of three Georgian pipelines, saying it was a precaution.