Russian Troops to Land at Georgian Ports
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ Russia has dispatched nine warships to safeguard key Georgian ports and plans to send troops ashore in its largest step so far into its neighbor’s civil war.
The move is meant to help the government of Eduard Shevardnadze, who is fighting rebels trying to restore to power Georgia’s ousted president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Government and rebel forces fought for a second day Wednesday around the western town of Khobi, with each side claiming it was making progress. Officials on both sides said armored vehicles and artillery were used, but neither side gave casualty figures or other details.
Government forces must take Khobi before they can attack the nearby town of Zugdidi, Gamsakhurdia’s base.
Russia, which officially claims neutrality, already has deployed some troops to protect the railroad linking Georgia’s vital Black Sea port of Poti with the capital of Tbilisi.
Russian troops guarding the tracks came under fire Wednesday from Gamsakhurdia supporters and fired back, suffering no casualties, Gen. Vasily Belchenko, deputy commander of Russian forces in the area, told the Russian news agency Interfax.
However, the ITAR-Tass news agency said one section close to Poti was seized and mined Wednesday by rebels in armored vehicles. There was no independent confirmation of the report.
Meanwhile, a flotilla of four landing ships, two escort vessels, a submarine chaser, a tanker and a rescue tug boat belonging to the Black Sea Fleet approached Poti on Wednesday, fleet spokesman Andrei Grachev said.
The operation is headed by the Black Sea Fleet commander, Admiral Eduard Baltin, he said. He did not disclose the size of the landing party.
Georgian Prime Minister Otar Patsatsia left for Poti to meet with Baltin, Georgia’s government press center said.
Worldwide Television News said Wednesday a Georgian freelance cameraman working for the London-based agency was killed in the war zone last week. A WTN statement said David Bolkvadze, 24, was believed to have been executed by rebel troops after being arrested on espionage charges Oct. 28.
Shevardnadze, who has been supervising operations on the front for the past several days, accused rebel forces of forging an alliance with ″fanatics″ in breakaway provinces of Georgia and southern Russia.
He said the rebels were getting men and guns from Abkhazia, a Georgian province that fell to separatists last month. Fighters from Chechnya, a region in southern Russia that has declared its independence, and Ingushetia, a region wanting more autonomy, also are helping the rebels.
The rebels, in turn, say Russian forces are covertly aiding Shevardnadze in the fighting. Russia says its troops take no part in combat operations and only fulfill humanitarian missions.