US, Russia Anchor Military Ships in Georgian Ports

Former Cold War opponents face off over Georgian provinces a day after Russia recognizes the independence of the two rebel territories.

In this image provided by the US Navy the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dallas heads to sea in Souda Bay, Crete with a load of humanitarian assistance supplies for the Republic of Georgia Friday, Aug. 22, 2008. The United States has canceled plans to try to dock the military ship carrying humanitarian aid in the Georgian port of Poti, where Russian forces are posted on the outskirts, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said Wednesday Aug. 27, 2008. (AP Photo/US Navy - Paul Farley)

BATUMI, Georgia (AP) -- A U.S. military ship loaded with aid docked at a southern Georgian port Wednesday, and Russia sent three missile boats to another Georgian port as the standoff escalated over a nation devastated by war with Russia.

The dockings came a day after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recognized two Georgian rebel territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, prompting harsh criticism from Western nations.

Georgia reacted Wednesday by recalling all but two diplomats from its embassy in Moscow.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas, carrying 34 tons of humanitarian aid, docked in the Black Sea port of Batumi, south of the zone of this month's fighting between Russia and Georgia. The arrival avoided Georgia's main cargo port of Poti, still controlled by Russian soldiers.

The U.S. Embassy in Georgia had earlier said the ship was headed to Poti, but then retracted the statement. Zaza Gogava, head of Georgia's joint forces command, said Poti could have been mined by Russian forces and still contained several sunken Georgian ships hit in the fighting.

Poti's port reportedly suffered heavy damage from the Russian military. In addition, Russian troops have established checkpoints on the northern approach to the city and a U.S. ship docking there could be perceived as a direct challenge.

Meanwhile, Russia's missile cruiser, the Moskva, and two smaller missile boats anchored at the port of Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, some 180 miles north of Batumi. The Russian navy says the ships will be involved in peacekeeping operations.

Although Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of an European Union-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general has called using warships to deliver aid "devilish."

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn warned that NATO has already exhausted the number of forces it can have in the Black Sea, according to international agreements, and warned Western nations against sending more ships.

"Can NATO - which is not a state located in the Black Sea - continuously increase its group of forces and systems there? It turns out that it cannot," Nogovitsyn was quoted as saying Wednesday by the Interfax news agency.

Western leaders assailed Russia for violating Georgia's territorial sovereignty.

"We cannot accept these violations of international law, of accords for security and cooperation in Europe, of United Nations resolutions, and the taking ... of a territory by the army of a neighboring country," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Wednesday.

President Bush, meanwhile, urged Russia to reconsider its "irresponsible decision."

"Russia's action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations," Bush said in a statement Tuesday from Crawford, Texas, where he is on vacation.

Many of the Russian forces that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the separatist region of South Ossetia have pulled back, but hundreds at least are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones" inside Georgia proper.

The U.S. and other Western countries have given substantial military aid to Georgia, angering Russia, which regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence. Russia also has complained bitterly about aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.

In Tbilisi, boxes of aid were sorted, stacked and loaded onto trucks Wednesday for some of the tens of thousands of people still displaced by the fighting. Some boxes were stamped "USAID - from the American People."

Tim Callaghan, head of the USAID response team, told an AP television crew that aid workers would "continue to assess the needs" of those affected by the fighting and "provide other assistance as required."

The United Nations estimated that nearly 160,000 people had to flee their homes, but hundreds have returned to Georgian cities like Gori in the past week.

Russia's ambassador to Moldova, meanwhile, said the country's leaders should be wary of what happened in Georgia and avoid a "bloody and catastrophic trend of events" in the separatist, pro-Russia region of Trans-Dniester. The ambassador, Valeri Kuzmin, said Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia because of "Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia."

Trans-Dniester broke away from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1990. A war broke out between Moldovan forces and separatists in 1992 leaving 1,500 dead. Trans-Dniester is supported by Russia but is not recognized internationally. Russia has 1,500 troops stationed there to guard weapons facilities.

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Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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