Defiant Russia Rolls Into Key Georgia City

Soldiers ride atop a military vehicle part of a Russian military convoy near Gori, Georgia, Aug. 13, 2008.
AP Photo/Darko Bandic
Defying a cease-fire agreement, a Russian military convoy rolled through a strategically important Georgia city Wednesday and Georgian officials claimed there was looting and bombing by Russians and their allies.

President Bush said a massive U.S. aid package was on the way for tens of thousands uprooted in the conflict and demanded Russia "keep its word and act to end this crisis" in the former Soviet republic.

"The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia and insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected," Bush said sternly in Washington.

One day after the Kremlin and its smaller neighbor agreed to a French-brokered cease-fire to end the dispute over two pro-Russian breakaway territories, the pact appeared fragile at best.

An Associated Press reporter saw dozens of Russian trucks and armored vehicles leaving the city of Gori, some 20 miles south of the separatist region of South Ossetia and home of a key highway that divides Georgia in two, and moving deeper into Georgia.

CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports things were very chaotic on the road between Tblisi and Gori Wednesday. Floods of refugees were on the move, some fleeing before what they were convinced was another Russian advance. Others told horror stories of revenge attacks and looting by irregular militias which had crossed into Georgia from South Ossetia, the breakaway province Georgia had tried to retake. One woman said the militias were systematically forcing families out of their villages and burning houses. Others told of men and boys being separated from the women and of rapes taking place.

Soldiers waved at journalists and one jokingly shouted, "Come with us, beauty, we're going to Tbilisi." The convoy roared southeast, toward the Georgian capital, but then turned north and set up camp about an hour's drive away from it.

Georgian officials said the Russians had looted and bombed Gori before they left. Moscow denied the accusation, but it appeared to be on a technicality: A BBC reporter in Gori said Russian tanks were in the streets while their South Ossetian allies seized cars, looted homes and set houses on fire.

While it was impossible to verify these stories, Phillips reports, smoke said to be coming from burning houses drifted through valleys. What is clear is that the complete Russian victory in this small but nasty war has created a new reality on the ground. Not just in Georgia but in relations between Russia and the west.

As confusion reigned on the first day of the cease-fire agreement, Bush called a Rose Garden speech to express concern about reports the Russians were already breaking it.

He said he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first to France and then to Tbilisi to reinforce U.S. efforts to "rally the world in defense of a free Georgia."

For her part, Rice said: "This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed."

In an interview Wednesday with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, Georgia president Mikhail Saakashvili sounded a defiant note.

"Russians have been telling us that we should give up fight for freedom, that we should succumb to this pressure. No matter how they bomb us, no matter how many of us they kill, no matter how they want to terrorize us, we will never give up our freedom. Georgia will never, ever surrender,'' he told Couric.

Saakashvilli refuted the Russian view of the conflict, that in essence Georgia started the problem by trying to reassert control over South Ossetia.

"Saying this is a classical tactic of aggressors. Soviet Union saying this, Hungary provoked in 1996, that Czechoslovakia provoked and that Afghanistan attacked the Soviet Union in 1979. The reality is that my country was attacked by hundreds of Russian tanks and the only thing we tried to do is to defend ourselves, to push them back, of course."