TBILISI (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Georgia on Friday to show Washington’s support for its embattled ally and to secure a French-led peace deal to withdraw occupying Russian forces.
“I’m going now to talk to (Georgian) President Saakashvili about the clarifications that the French have provided,” Rice told reporters on the plane.
“And then we’ll try to get this formal ceasefire in place because the goal of this is to get a ceasefire and to get Russian forces to withdraw from the country ASAP,”.
Amid reports of looting by irregular militias, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russian troops of “ethnically cleansing” the rebel areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said Moscow wanted to force Georgia into a humiliation like the one suffered by Czechoslovakia in the 1930s at the hands of the Nazis.
Russia says its actions were fully justified by Georgia’s “aggression” in attacking South Ossetia last week and maintains its troops must stay on the ground in Georgia to secure the situation and prevent further conflict.
The two sides traded accusations on Friday of misconduct in the war zone. Georgia quoted a U.S. human rights group alleging Russia had used cluster bombs against civilians – a charge denied by Russia – while Moscow accused Tbilisi’s troops of planting mines in civilian areas as they retreated earlier this week.
Moscow attacked Georgia with troops, tanks, planes and warships last week after Tbilisi sent a force into South Ossetia to try to take back control over the province, which threw off Georgian control in a war in the 1990s.
Russian troops and armour remained deep inside Georgian territory on Friday, in Moscow’s biggest show of force outside its borders since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
In Moscow, the General Staff said at its daily news briefing that there had been no shooting in the past 24 hours.
The United Nations has expressed alarm at lawlessness in war-torn areas. Witnesses in the area have seen Ossetian militiamen attacking villages and stealing cars.
The United States, a close ally of Georgia, has accused Russia of trying to “punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West” and has threatened serious consequences for years to come unless Moscow steps back.
In a move further souring Russia’s ties with Washington, Poland agreed on Thursday to host elements of a U.S. anti-missile system on its land after Washington agreed to base a battery of Patriot missiles there amid the Georgia crisis.
Russia’s envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told Reuters that the striking of the deal at such a sensitive time showed it was directed at Russia, not Iran as Washington has said. “Of course the missile defence system will be deployed not against Iran but against the strategic potential of Russia,” Rogozin said in a telephone interview.
Russia views the plans for an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe as a serious threat to its national security and has promised to respond.
Diplomatic efforts to end the crisis, which has unnerved oil markets and alarmed the West, continued.
Georgia has yet to formally place its signature on a peace deal brokered this week by France, and Saakashvili appeared uncertain about it ahead of Rice’s arrival. “We are still in the negotiating process…Russians are trying to justify their invasion and to legalise their presence in Georgia,” Saakashvili told CNN. “…I think we should take a closer look at it (the peace agreement).”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, near Georgia’s border, on Friday to urge Russia to embrace diplomacy in its showdown with its small neighbour.
Germany is Russia’s biggest trading partner and has historically taken a balanced position towards Moscow, meaning the Kremlin pays close attention to Berlin.
On Friday, Russian tanks and armoured vehicles were again blocking the main entrance to the key Georgian town of Gori, 70 km (45 miles) west of Tbilisi, a Reuters correspondent said.
Russian soldiers relaxing under trees at the Gori checkpoint said looters had been active in the town overnight.
The West is determined to stop the Caucasus sliding further into conflict, not least out of fear for the security of key oil supply routes through the region from the Caspian Sea.
On Thursday, witnesses said Russian tanks had rolled through the Black Sea port of Poti, accompanying trucks with troops to the port area. A large column of Russian troops was seen in the western town of Zugdidi, not far from the second pro-Moscow separatist region of Abkhazia.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, architect of a three-day old ceasefire, said Saakashvili’s signature to a six-point peace deal would “consolidate” the halt to fighting and lead to the withdrawal of Russian troops.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “We can forget about talks on Georgia’s territorial integrity because it’s impossible to force South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree that they can be returned into Georgia’s fold by force”.
Russia has said the case of Kosovo, a breakaway province of Serbia whose self-proclaimed independence was promptly recognised by major Western powers, creates a legal precedent for Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, responding to Lavrov, said Georgia’s territorial integrity was not under debate.