Russian troops seized control of the economically vital Georgian port of Poti Tuesday morning, a day after Moscow said it had begun pulling its forces out of Georgia, The Wall Street Journal reports.
At about 9 a.m. local time, some 70 Russian peacekeeping forces entered the port grounds on seven armored personnel carriers, according to Georgian government and port officials. They detained 20 Georgian soldiers stationed in the port and confiscated their weapons, then took up positions on the territory of the port, occasionally moving in and out on armored personnel carriers and in Russian army jeeps.
"They`re looking for anything that can be construed as military equipment," said Alan Middleton, chief executive of Poti Sea Port Corp.
A Journal reporter on the scene saw large numbers of port workers, police and local officials are milling around outside the entrance, which has been closed off by Russian troops.
The Russian move is another big blow to Georgia`s economy just as intense diplomatic efforts by the European Union and Washington appeared to have succeeded in winning Russia`s commitment to a pull-out. The conflict first blew up on Aug. 7, when Georgia attacked its breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a massive Russian counter-attack. Russian forces have since occupied all of South Ossetia as well as areas deep into Georgian territory.
Poti Sea Port Corp is 51% owned by the investment authority of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the United Arab Emirates. It is Georgia`s busiest port and a key gateway for the region, last year handling eight million tons of cargo. A big expansion plan is in the works which will triple the port`s capacity. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said Poti will be turned into a free economic zone and Ras Al Khaimah was planning an ambitious new industrial development next to the port.
Poti is a critical entry point not only for Georgia but also for its neighbors Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as the land-locked nations of Central Asia. The flow of goods into Poti and other Georgian Black Sea ports like Batumi has already been disrupted by the war, especially the Russian occupation of Gori, which has severed the main east-west arterial road through Georgia.
The port was closed for two days after Russian planes bombed Poti on Aug. 8, at the start of the war, but since then it had been operating normally.
"The port is now paralyzed," said Zaza Gorazia, Mr. Saakashvili`s representative in western Georgia.