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Life Slowly Returns To Normal In Georgian Port

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A visit to the Georgian port of Poti, still under effective Russian control in the wake of this month's conflict, finds there are still some Russian soldiers inside the town — Georgia's largest Black Sea port. Many checkpoints dot the outskirts, but the town is beginning to return to normal.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, finding lessons in the wilderness. But first, much of the fighting earlier this month between Russia and Georgia was focused on the enclave of South Ossetia. But Russian troops also took up positions around the city of Poti and launched a bombing raid on the strategic Black Sea port. Now life there seems to be returning to normal. NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: Poti's residents are nervous. Yes, they say most of the town's residents have returned after fleeing the brief fighting earlier this month, and life is much like it was before the Russians came. But rumors fly through the local open-air market like rockets, making it difficult for Poti's residents to feel better psychologically. Nona Kuprashvili(ph) sells bread and cigarettes in the market, and next to her, Gudladi Shagidzia(ph) sells watermelons. They are both sweating in the scorching afternoon sun. Both fled the Russian attacks in early August. They returned a few days ago. Neither is convinced there won't be another Russian attack.

Ms. NONA KUPRASHVILI: (Through translator) No, we have just heard that some more planes flew to this area today and we'd like to escape. We'd like to leave this area.

Mr. GUDLADI SHAGIDZIA: (Through Translator) I don't sleep at night normally, and I'm afraid. I'm just worrying about my kids.

SHUSTER: But the possibility of another Russian attack appears remote. On the main road to Poti from the east, the Russians have removed a checkpoint at a bridge over the Rioni River. A squad of Russian troops was working in the field a hundred yards away. Traffic was free to move in and out of town. The Russian presence here appears to be slowly disappearing, says Poti's mayor Ivan Saginadze.

Mayor IVAN SAGINADZE (Poti, Georgia): (Through Translator) Right now, the situation in Poti is quite calm. Everything functions normally but we have two checkpoints. One of them is at the entrance of town and the other one is on the seaside.

SHUSTER: That checkpoint is on the road north toward the breakaway enclave of Abkhazia. The Russians appear to be keeping track of any unusual movements in the area. Just a few days ago, Russia recognized the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Poti's residents could be forgiven for their nervousness. On August 8th, in the middle of the night, Russian jets did drop bombs on the port. Alan Middleton(ph), head of the private company that runs the commercial port, says five people were killed in the attack, three who work for him.

Mr. ALAN MIDDLETON (Commercial Port Employee, Poti, Gerogia): A number of bombs were dropped onto parts of the port area here. These bombs were fragmentation-type bombs. It caused loss of life and some damage to the infrastructure.

SHUSTER: The Russian jets also hit the nearby decaying harbor of Georgia's Coast Guard, disabling two small ships there. The damage to the commercial port has been repaired and it's already working to capacity. Middleton still finds the Russian attack puzzling.

Mr. MIDDLETON: We are a commercial organization here and we are some considerable distance away from the conflict area in South Ossetia. What the strategic reasons for bombing Poti are - afraid I don't know.

SHUSTER: The Russians have paid a few visits to the port and made a feeble show of inspecting the cargo for weapons. They did discover five American military Humvees and drove them off. There, Saginadze believes, the attack was meant to intimidate the Georgian government.

Mayor SAGINADZE: (Through Translator) It's very, very useful, strategic place and they - by doing it, they try to control ports and all cargos that come here.

SHUSTER: Both sides have routinely exaggerated casualty figures of the five-day war. But Mayor Saginadze responded candidly to questions about what happened. He said ten people had been killed, all told, four soldiers and six civilians. Beside the one bombing raid on the port, the Russians did not damage anything else in the town. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Poti.

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