Bush: Breakaway Regions Belong To Georgia

A statue of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is reflected in bullet-ridden window in central Gori, Georgia Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008. A small column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles left the strategic Georgian city of Gori on Tuesday, the first sign of a Russian pullback of troops from Georgia after a cease-fire intended to end fighting that reignited Cold War tensions. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)
AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel
President Bush, pushing back against claims by Russia, said Wednesday the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of pro-Western Georgia and that Washington will work with allies to insure Georgia's independence and territorial integrity.

Bush offered strong support for Georgia in a speech in Orlando, Fla., condemning Russia's brutal crackdown in the former Soviet republic.

"The United States of America will continue to support Georgia's democracy," the president said. "Our military will continue to provide needed humanitarian aid to the Georgia people."

The State Department, meanwhile, said Turkey was allowing three U.S. military ships to pass through the Turkish Straits from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea to deliver humanitarian relief supplies to Georgia.

"South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia," the president declared, drawing applause from his audience at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. The two Russian-backed separatist regions are trying to pull free of Georgian rule, while Bush and other Western leaders insist that Georgia maintain its current borders.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said the question of Georgia's territorial integrity is a dead issue, a sign that Moscow could try to absorb the two separatist regions.

Meanwhile, Russian forces at positions deep inside Georgia shoveled and hammered Wednesday, digging trenches, building sentry posts and in some cases just standing around in the heat - but showing few signs of meeting their president's promise that they'll be out by Friday.

After the seizure, binding and blindfolding of nearly two dozen Georgian servicemen, ship sinkings and other mayhem, some Georgian soldiers said they fear the Russians are trying to provoke them and justify the resumption of the five-day war that pounded Georgia's infrastructure and morale.

The Russian military significantly downsized its presence in the strategic central city of Gori as Western governments pressed for a complete withdrawal from Georgian territory. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said his troops would complete a pullback as far as South Ossetia - the focus of the fighting - and a surrounding security cordon by Friday.

But few signs of movement have been seen other than the departure of a small contingent that have held Gori.

The warfare in a nation straining to escape Moscow's influence and the Russian military's prolonged grip on a broad swath of Georgian territory - has sent tensions between Moscow and the West to some of their highest levels since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Meanwhile, Russia informed Norway that it plans to cut all military ties with NATO, Norway's Defense Ministry said on Wednesday.

The Nordic country's embassy in Moscow received a telephone call from "a well-placed official in the Russian Ministry of Defense," who said Moscow plans "to freeze all military cooperation with NATO and allied countries," State Secretary Espen Barth Eide at the Norwegian ministry said.

On Wednesday, Russian troops built a sentry post about 30 miles from the Georgian capital. Conditions throughout much of Georgia remained tense.

Russian soldiers set up what appeared to be semi-permanent camps Wednesday in at least three positions in western Georgia, near the Black Sea port of Poti, with dozens of men digging in by armored personnel carriers and trucks. A large Russian convoy rolled on a road near Senaki, also deep in western Georgia.

Further east, soldiers were building a sentry post of timber on a hill outside Igoeti, around 30 miles from Tbilisi and the closest point to the capital where Russian troops have maintained a significant presence.

While Igoeti is not far from South Ossetia, Georgian officials said it is outside the area where Russian peacekeepers are permitted to maintain positions under a cease-fire, in a so-called "security zone" around the border with South Ossetia. A top Russian general, meanwhile, said Russia plans to construct nearly a score of checkpoints to be manned by hundreds of soldiers within the zone.

In Gori, which the general said is outside the zone, no Russian troops or heavy weaponry could be seen Wednesday evening, including on the bridges and main access points. Earlier in the day, Russian troops were strictly limited access to Gori to residents and turning away foreign journalists.

In a back alley in Gori, where dozens of people gathered to await promised food aid, Shota Abramidze, a 73-year-old retired engineer, said most Gori residents are worried that the Russians planned to stay.

"They're not leaving. Why not? And they're brick walls when we try to talk to them," he said. "They've stolen everything. They've bombed everything. This is fascism, that's what this is."

In Tskhinvali, the capital of separatist South Ossetia, residents hoped the Russian forces would remain.

One man who gave only his first name, Roland, said he feared that if they left the Georgians would attack again.

"They will start pushing us, they will force us to join them," he said. "Never!"

Fewer Russian army checkpoints were set up along the main highway from Gori to Tbilisi on Wednesday evening, though Russian peacekeepers still stopped cars and checked documents of passengers.

And at a military training school in the mountain town of Sachkhere, a Georgian sentry said he feared Russian forces will make good on their threat to return after a confrontation a day earlier.

The sentry, who gave his name only as Cpl. Vasily, said 23 Russian tanks, APCS and heavy guns showed up at the school on Tuesday and demanded to be let in. The Georgians refused and the Russians left after a 30-minute standoff but vowed to return after blowing up facilities in the village of Osiauri, he said.

Georgia's Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Russian soldiers destroyed military logistics facilities in Osiauri, but the claim could not immediately be confirmed.

"We're trying not to provoke them; otherwise they'll stay here for five to six months," Vasily said. He said the school itself had no heavy weapons or other significant strategic value, unlike the military base raided by Russians at Senaki in western Georgia, "where they even took the windows off the buildings."

Shota Utiashvili, a Georgian Interior Ministry department head, said Russian helicopters dropped incendiary bombs in a forest just a few kilometers from Tbilisi.

Russia sent its tanks and troops into Georgia after Georgia launched a heavy artillery barrage Aug. 7 on the separatist, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia. The cease-fire calls for Russian forces to pull back to the positions they held before Aug. 7.

The Kremlin said Medvedev told French President Nicolas Sarkozy by phone Tuesday that Russian troops would withdraw from most of Georgia by Friday - some to Russia, others to South Ossetia and the security zone extending about 7 kilometers (4 miles) into Georgia along the South Ossetian border.

The White House has made clear that it expects Russia to move faster.

"Both the size and pace of the withdrawal needs to increase, and needs to increase sooner rather than later," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "I don't think they need any more additional time."

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian general staff, said Wednesday that Russia will build a double line of checkpoints totaling 18 in the security zone, with about 270 soldiers manning the front-line posts. The plans clearly show Russia aims to completely solidify control of South Ossetia.

South Ossetia technically remains a part of Georgia, but Russia has said it will accept whatever South Ossetia's leaders decide about their future status - which is almost certain to be either a repeat of its independence declarations or a request to be incorporated into Russia.

Meanwhile, CBS News Moscow bureau chief Svetlana Berdnikova reported Wednesday that the second separatist province in Georgia, Abkhazia, called on Russia to recognize its independence. The appeal followed last week's expulsion of Georgian forces, amid the South Ossetia fighting, from the small sector of Abkhazia that they had controlled.

Russia has strongly backed both regions since the mid-1990s, and Medvedev said last week that neither region is likely to ever agree to be part of Georgia. His statement was seen as tacit endorsement of both republics' independence or absorption into Russia.

Western leaders have stressed Georgia must retain its current borders, setting the stage for tense dispute over the regions.

"South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia," U.S. President George W. Bush declared Wednesday in Florida. Abkhazia is the other separatist region of Georgia that is backed by Russia.

Meanwhile, a convoy of flatbed trucks carrying badly needed food aid to one of the areas most heavily hit by the fighting was waved through a checkpoint by Russian soldiers. And the U.S. State Department said Turkey was allowing three U.S. military ships to pass from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea to deliver humanitarian relief supplies to Georgia.

Two influential U.S. senators made a show of solidarity with Georgia, traveling to the country to assess the situation.

"We're not going to let this aggression stand. The world is behind you," Sen. Joe Lieberman told female refugees during a visit to refugee center in Tbilisi. "We can't let a bully do this, because if they do it here, they'll do it other places, and if we don't stop it here we'll have to stop it in a much more difficult way."

Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham met with Georgian officials as well as with the ranking U.S. general overseeing humanitarian aid efforts. The Russians are "not going to prevent the American people from helping you," Graham said.

Both are members of the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee and Lieberman is close to the Republican Party's likely nominee for the U.S presidency - John McCain.

About 80,000 people displaced by the fighting are in more than 600 centers in and around Tbilisi. The United Nations estimates 158,000 people in all fled their homes in the last two weeks - some south to regions around Tbilisi, some north to Russia.