US Sends 3rd Ship To Georgia, Plans $1B In Aid

A convoy of Russian troops drives towards the Abkhazian border as they leave the Georgian army base of Senaki, western Georgia, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008. Russia started to withdraw its forces from Georgia on Friday, promising that the pull out will be accomplished in a day, but Russian troops started to dig new positions around the Black Sea port of Poti, which is 32 km (20 miles) south of Abkhazia and lies well outside the security zone, where Russian peacekeeping forces are allowed to stay on Georgian soil. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)
By  | 

TBILISI, Georgia - A U.S. Navy ship loaded with humanitarian aid steamed through the Dardanelles on its way to Georgia on Wednesday, as the Bush administration prepared to roll out a $1 billion economic aid package for the ex-Soviet republic.

The multiyear proposal calls for spending about half of the total in the administration's remaining five months in office and recommending that the incoming president and his team continue funding the project when they take over in January, a senior official said.

The White House and State Department intend on Wednesday afternoon to jointly announce the aid package, which follows a fact-finding and assessment mission to Georgia by Reuben Jeffrey, a senior U.S. diplomat who returned from the country last week, the official told the AP.

Jeffrey has recommended that assistance be sped to Georgia to help it rebuild its economy and infrastructure that was destroyed by Russian tanks, troops and airstrikes, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

Vice President Dick Cheney is due to arrive in Georgia on Thursday from Azerbaijan as part of a swing through three former Soviet republics to emphasize U.S. interest and support.

The Russian consul in Georgia, meanwhile, said Russia closed its embassy there and halted consular operations after Georgia severed diplomatic ties following last month's war.

The diplomatic suspension means no new applications for Russian entry visas will be accepted, a blow to Georgians who have relatives in Russia or other ties there. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians live in Russia, many with Russian citizenship.

"A break-off of diplomatic ties is an action that has a price," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in Moscow. He said the ministry is considering other measures.

The diplomatic break follows a five-day war and Moscow's recognition of two separatist Georgia regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent nations. The conflict has brought tensions between Moscow and the West to their highest level since the end of the Soviet Union.

"Now I cannot get to Russia to see my wife," Vakhtang Tsereteli, a Georgian whose wife is a Russian citizen and lives in Moscow, said outside the consulate Wednesday. "I don't know what to do."

The United States has already sent two military ships bearing aid to Georgia, and the USS Mount Whitney steamed through the Dardanelles early Wednesday and was expected to pass through the Bosporus later in the day. The two Turkish-controlled straits link the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.

One of the other U.S. ships, the USS McFaul, sailed back through the straits toward the Mediterranean late Monday.

"We don't understand what American ships are doing on the Georgian shores, but this is a question of taste, it's a decision by our American colleagues," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Tuesday. "The second question is why the humanitarian aid is being delivered on naval vessels armed with the newest rocket systems."

Russia's reaction to NATO ships "will be calm, without any sort of hysteria. But of course, there will be an answer," Interfax quoted Putin as saying during a visit to Uzbekistan.

The conflict erupted Aug. 7 after Georgia launched an assault on the Russian-backed South Ossetia province in a bid to bring it under central government control.

Russian forces swiftly repelled the offensive and drove deep into Georgia, whose staunchly pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili has angered Moscow by seeking NATO membership for the Caucasus nation.

Georgia straddles a major westward route for oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea and has become the focus of a struggle for regional clout between Russia and the West.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament appealed to Russia to "honor all its commitments" to withdraw its troops under a cease-fire agreement with Georgia.

The EU parliament also condemned alleged looting carried out by Russian forces and linked militia groups in Georgia, and it criticized the use of cluster bombs by both Russian and Georgian military officials.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is scheduled to visit Georgia Sept. 15-16, said a spokeswoman for Saakashvili's office, Nato Partskhvaladze.

NATO declined to offer Georgia a road map for membership at an April summit, in part because of concerns about angering Russia, but the alliance assured Georgia it will eventually join.