Georgians: Russian Troops Remain To Show Power

Russian soldiers sit atop tanks on the road from Tbilisi to Gori on Tuesday. i i

Russian soldiers sit atop tanks on the road from Tbilisi to Gori on Tuesday. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Russian soldiers sit atop tanks on the road from Tbilisi to Gori on Tuesday.

Russian soldiers sit atop tanks on the road from Tbilisi to Gori on Tuesday.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Georgians escape from a house set on fire in the village outside the South Ossetia capital. i i

Georgians escape from a house set on fire in the village of Kvemo-Achebeti, outside the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, on Monday. Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images
Georgians escape from a house set on fire in the village outside the South Ossetia capital.

Georgians escape from a house set on fire in the village of Kvemo-Achebeti, outside the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, on Monday.

Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

On a dusty, sun-baked hill outside the Georgian city of Gori, a Russian officer standing by a row of 15 idling armored personnel carriers and tanks commands his soldiers to head toward Russia.

The men clamber into their vehicles and then rumble down toward a road, kicking up huge clouds of dust. Col. Igor Konoshenko says they're among the first forces to leave Georgia as part of Russia's pullout.

"We received the order to pull out yesterday," the officer says. "Across Georgia, support troops are being moved out."

But it's far from clear whether the exercise is anything more than a public relations stunt. Konoshenko gives no indication of how long the withdrawal will take. In the countryside around Gori, there's no sign of any troop movements. Roads are almost empty, and soldiers in several encampments seem to be hunkering down.

Show Of Power

In central Gori, hungry residents line up for handouts of bread. Many here say they don't believe the Russians occupying their ghost town of a city will be leaving any time soon. Georgi Benashvili says that by refusing to honor its promises, Moscow is showing Georgia and the rest of the world it can do whatever it pleases.

"They just want to show their power, that's all," he says.

Many believe Russia's occupation of Georgia is aimed at destroying the country's infrastructure after Georgian forces failed to capture the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia earlier this month. There are reports of large-scale looting by Russian troops in the large swath of the country they control. And according to the vague language of Russia's cease-fire with Georgia, Russia may be entitled to keep its troops in a buffer zone on Georgian territory after its forces pull out.

A short distance away, in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, the Russians have already started rebuilding. Vladimir Ivanov, a member of the government engineer corps, says the ruined city soon will be livable for returning refugees.

"We're rebuilding hospitals, schools and telephone lines," Ivanov says. "This place will look very different in a matter of weeks."

Many think Russia's reconstruction work here, together with the massive presence of Russian troops in South Ossetia, is meant to show that the impoverished region will remain firmly under Russia's control.

Disturbing Signs

Just outside Tskhinvali, a much more ominous form of change is visible. The houses of ethnic Georgians who fled the fighting are being burned down. Flames shoot out of the windows of houses, and trails of smoke dot the countryside. Bulldozers are knocking down what's left, apparently to ensure that those Georgians who fled can never return.

Resident Boris Kelesayev says that's exactly what South Ossetians want.

"What the Russians are doing here should have been done long ago," he says. "They're just carrying out their mission. We don't want to have anything to do with the Georgians. We want to be part of Russia."

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