Russians Move Toward Gorge Despite Cease-Fire

By Christopher Torchia | August 12, 2008 | 4:08 PM EDT
Chuberi, Georgia (AP) - The Russian troops sprawled on top of the tanks in a 135-vehicle convoy looked relaxed, with bandannas on their heads rather than helmets. Some smoked, one ate a chunk of watermelon. Many drivers had slung flak jackets over vehicle windows.

Georgians on the side of the road watched, quietly. On a bridge, a group of about 20 men who had been swimming in the river stood barechested in shorts as the tanks, armored personnel carriers, fuel, troop and supply trucks, a few hauling artillery pieces, rolled by.

The display of Russia's military might came hours after a cease-fire had been declared Tuesday. The northbound convoy - seen in Georgia by an Associated Press reporter - appeared headed toward the Kodori Gorge, an area in the breakaway region of Abkhazia that until recently was controlled by Georgian forces.

Russian-backed separatist forces on Tuesday forced Georgian troops out of the northern part of the gorge, their last stronghold in the region. Abkhazian military officials said only Abkhaz forces were involved in operations in the gorge.

Villagers who fled the gorge in recent days under intense bombardment from Russian planes and artillery, as well as separatist forces, said the area was virtually deserted and efforts to resist the attack had all but stopped. One man, who fled to Chuberi overnight from the gorge, said the last Georgian troops left Monday, though some pro-Georgian militiamen were trapped there.

"They were retreating. It wasn't panic, but they were trying to leave one by one, not in groups," said Nugzar Tsulukidze, a 58-year-old man who belonged to a local militia. "It was no use, with just our rifles."

Hundreds of people displaced by fighting in Kodori were in Chuberi, about 25 miles southeast of the gorge, some staying in a dilapidated school building. Some said up to 3,000 people had been forced to leave their homes; the International Committee of the Red Cross said Georgian authorities had asked it to help 1,500 people, including 600 children, who were taking refuge in Chuberi from the fighting in Abkhazia.

Chuberi lies on the banks of a fast-flowing river and is in a remote area of steep, tree-covered gorges. The road to the village is rough in many areas, and passes through crude tunnels blasted through the rock face.

Several Russian armored personnel carriers were parked along the road cut into the hillside that winds toward Chuberi. The large Russian convoy was seen south of Chuberi, and consisted of regular troops rather than a "peacekeeping" force of Russians that has been operating in the area for years in the wake of separatist unrest.

"We don't have anything. We don't have food. We left when the shelling started, with very few things," said Madlena Guarmiani, a woman who fled her home in Kodori Gorge. Villagers in Chuberi said they had heard distant shelling for 10 minutes on Tuesday morning.

Zoia Aprasidze, another woman who fled, said not enough attention was being paid to the plight of villagers in Abkhazia while most of the media and political focus was on places like the city of Gori, which became a target of heavy Russian bombardment after Georgia launched an assault on another separatist region, South Ossetia.

"We don't know what's going on and why the Russians did this to us. They said they were defending Ossetians. Who are they defending here?" she said. "If the Russians say they're defending the civilian population, why don't they care about Kodori Gorge?"

Lasha Margiani, a village official from the Kodori Gorge, said while some villagers found refuge in Georgia, others were stuck without cars or gasoline.

"They don't know where they'll go. We have no idea. There's so much confusion," Margiani said. "It feels like an annexed country."

Kodori Gorge lies in the mountainous area of northeastern Abkhazia, and is home to members of Georgia's Svan ethnic group. The upper part of the gorge has resisted efforts by Abkhazian separatists to absorb it into their territory. Two years ago, Georgia's central government disbanded a local strongman's militia in the gorge, and some villagers complained Tuesday that the disarmament made it difficult to fight effectively in recent days.

In 2007, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visited the area to attend the opening of a road connecting Chuberi with Sakeni, a village in the Kodori Gorge, which in fact encompasses several gorges and two mountain passes. He said the road created a stronger link between Georgia and the gorge, undermining efforts by separatists - he called them "hyenas" - to seize the area.

"Georgia's ill-wishers are well aware that Georgia is impossible to defeat when it is united and when it has world support," Saakashvili said.
The Russian troops sprawled on top of the tanks in a 135-vehicle convoy looked relaxed, with bandannas on their heads rather than helmets.