Russia to Hand Abandoned Town Back to Georgia
Georgian officials and Russian soldiers faced each other at the frontline on Thursday to negotiate the handover of a strategic town abandoned by Georgia's army three days ago.
Flanked by plainclothes guards and wearing body armor, Georgia's security council secretary met the commander of the Russian soldiers who the day before had driven into Gori, 60 km (35 miles) from the Georgian capital.
Russian tanks blocked the roads into Gori. Soldiers stood watching and smoking cigarettes.
"We're trying to arrange a peaceful pullout of the Russian army," security council secretary Kakha Lomaia told journalists before driving off with Russian army officers in an off-road vehicle towards Gori.
The Russians bombed Georgian military positions around Gori last weekend and had also hit an apartment block.
Russia has supported separatists in the breakaway region of South Ossetia -- which lies 30 km (18 miles) north of Gori -- in a war against Georgia which flared last week.
One Georgian official said the Russian withdrawal had been delayed.
"We had an agreement that the Russians would leave Gori at 7 a.m. (4 pm London time) today, but later they said would leave at 1 p.m.," an Interior Ministry spokesman said by telephone.
"And now they say they will leave in two or three days." Russia said its soldiers entered Gori, barely 24 hours after a ceasefire, to destroy Georgian military equipment and secure a nearby arms depot abandoned by the Georgians.
And at the frontline Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov, the Russian commander, said the handover would proceed.
"The first step is joint patrols with the Russian army and Georgian police," Borisov told journalists … The idea is for people to start returning to their homes."
He warned the Georgians to keep its army away from Gori.
Driving in a black Mercedes car registered in Georgia, Borisov had earlier guided a Georgian police convoy into the centre of the near-deserted town where 50,000 people had once lived.
Glass littered the streets around the main square of Gori, the birthplace of Soviet leader Josef Stalin and a key point on the main highway linking eastern and western Georgia.
Tank tracks scarred the streets. The streets were empty except for a group of elderly people.
"It's been so difficult for the past few days but yesterday the Russians came and it has been different," an old woman said as she watched Russian commanders guide about 60 Georgian policemen around the town.
Despite Georgian assertions that Russian forces had destroyed the city, there was little damage to the buildings. But there were signs of looting which locals blamed on militia out of Russian control.
Shops had been smashed up and there were very few parked cars.
"They were stealing cars and breaking into shops," Vasily, 72, said.
"They spoke Ossetian." The Russians have pledged to stop any looting and militia activity but on Thursday men wearing an assortment of camouflaged uniforms stole cars from journalists and a hidden sniper shot at a female Georgian television correspondent.