Russia Prevents Georgians From Entering Key Town

Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR

Hundreds of Georgian police officers and soldiers assembled along a road less than 10 miles from the city of Gori Thursday morning. Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili sounded very confident as he surveyed his men.

"I think during two hours we will take control of Gori, and we will control Gori for, cleaning the Gori from Russians, from Ossetians and some other criminals," Merabishvili said.

The minister said he has had some communication with the Russians.

"We give them possibility to let them leave this territory," Merabishvili said.

Wednesday night, Russia's military commander in Gori told journalists he planned to withdraw his forces Thursday to allow Georgian police to return to the town.

At the entrance to Gori, armed Georgian police stood alongside Russian soldiers in front of a tank, chatting in Russian. It was a remarkable site, especially after a bloody week of fighting.

At first, a Russian lieutenant said there had been no incidents and that things were calm. But then he told his Georgian counterpart that the Georgian would not be allowed to enter the town.

When the Georgians tried to drive in anyway, it almost turned into a firefight.

A column of Georgian trucks filled with soldiers in the back of pickups approached the Russian checkpoint. Both sides squared off — they cocked their guns at each other, but then the Georgians turned around and pulled back.

The Russian soldiers are very edgy right now, and heavy armor tank approached as a Russian soldier ran forward through the woods alongside it.

A Russian officer, who identified himself only as the deputy division commander, announced, simply, that they were not letting the Georgian police into the town.

When asked whether more fighting could erupt, the Russian commander answered with an ominous question.

"If the American president can take Baghdad, then why can't the Russians take Tbilisi?" he asked.

Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia.

Later in the day, two armed men walked right in front of the Russian army checkpoint and proceeded to steal two cars from journalists at gunpoint. The Georgian driver, named Giorgi Etakvili, said the carjackers were Ossetians and they were drunk.

The Russians aren't the only armed group operating around Gori. Ethnic Ossetian fighters from the nearby breakaway region of South Ossetia have also been active in the area.

"We're hearing an awful lot about the South Ossetian forces, and how they're acting as the Russians have come south into Georgia," says Marc Garlasco, a military analyst with Human Rights Watch.

"The Russian forces will come down, and they'll have these paramilitary troops behind them in a variety of uniforms, some of them are wearing Russian uniforms, some of them are wearing uniforms that they've purchased from somewhere, some are wearing American uniforms," Garlasco Says. "And they'll just come into the towns after the Russians have swept through, and they'll be looting, killing and burning the towns down to the ground. And it's incredibly, incredibly dangerous there for the civilian population."

Small groups of Georgian refugees trudged up the highway to Tbilisi, carrying their belongings in plastic bags.

A Georgian woman named Katerina said Ossetian fighters poured gas on live cows and pigs and set them on fire before torching the houses in her village.

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