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West presses for end to Georgia conflict
Georgia Russia XDB1 5991605
An orthodox priest waits in a bus to pass a Russian checkpoint in Gori, northwest of the capital Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, Aug. 15, 2008. Western leaders engaged in intense diplomacy Friday to persuade Russia to pull troops out of Georgia, but regional tensions soared after a top Russian general warned that Poland could face attack over its missile defense deal with the United States. - photo by Associated Press
    TBILISI, Georgia — Western leaders engaged in intense diplomacy Friday to persuade Russia to pull troops out of Georgia, but tensions soared after a top Russian general warned that Poland had exposed itself to attack by striking a missile defense deal with the United States.
    In his strongest declaration of support for Georgia, President Bush declared that America would stand by the Georgian people and that the staunch American ally’s territorial integrity must be respected after last week’s eruption of violence.
    ‘‘We will not cast them aside,’’ he said in Washington.
    But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at virtually the same time, said the separatist Georgian regions at the center of the conflict appear destined for independence.
    ‘‘After what happened, it’s unlikely Ossetians and Abkhazians will ever be able to live together with Georgia in one state,’’ he said in a joint news conference in the Russian resort of Sochi with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
    Meanwhile, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili, appearing at a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said he had signed a cease-fire agreement. But he said ‘‘this is not a done deal. We need to do our utmost to deter such behavior in the future.’’
    Rice said she had been assured that Medvedev will sign an identical document. But Medvedev’s press office said it had no information Friday night on whether he had signed the cease-fire yet.
    After Medvedev’s meeting with Merkel, the Kremlin said in a statement that once the Georgian president signs, ‘‘Russia will sign as a mediator.’’
    Presidential spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders already had signed the pact, and that the other mediators expected to sign it are the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
    The plan calls for the immediate withdrawal of Russian combat troops from Georgia, but allows Russian peacekeepers who were in South Ossetia when violence erupted to remain and take a greater role there.
    As the West pressed for peace, Russian Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn was quoted by Interfax News Agency on Friday as saying that by accepting a U.S. missile defense battery Poland ‘‘is exposing itself to a strike.’’
    He pointed out that Russian military doctrine permits the use of nuclear weapons ‘‘against the allies of countries having nuclear weapons if they in some way help them,’’ Interfax reported.
    Poland and the U.S. signed a deal Thursday for Poland to accept a missile defense battery as part of a system the United States says is aimed at blocking attacks by rogue nations but that Moscow claims is aimed at weakening Russia.
    Also Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the number of people who have been displaced by the fighting in Georgia has risen above 118,000. Some 73,000 of those are Georgians who have remained in the country, said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond.
    Meanwhile, Russian troops allowed some humanitarian supplies into the strategic city of Gori but continued their blockade, raising doubts about Russian intentions in the war-battered country.
    Gori, about 45 miles west of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, is key to when — or if — Russia will honor the terms of a cease-fire that calls for both sides to pull their forces back to the positions they held before fighting broke out last week in the separatist region of South Ossetia.
    Russian forces also were in several other cities deep in Georgia, officials said.
    By holding Gori, Russian forces effectively cut the country in half because the city sits along Georgia’s only significant east-west highway. Russian military vehicles were blocking the eastern road into the city on Friday, although they allowed in one Georgia bus filled with loaves of bread.
    ‘‘It’s quiet there, but now there are problems with food,’’ said Alexander Lomaia, the head of Georgia’s national security council. He said he was able to tour the city during the night.
    Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Friday that there are no Russian troops in the city of Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, despite reports they were headed in that direction overnight. However, he and Lomaia both said that troops remain in the Black Sea port city of Poti.
    On the outskirts of Tbilisi, Georgia stepped up aid efforts at a camp for displaced people.
    ‘‘We’re in a difficult situation, but our government is helping us,’’ said Zhozhona Gogidze, a displaced person. ‘‘You know I am very ashamed, we don’t have a kopeck left and I’m so hungry.’’
    Frustrations were mounting in the capital over confusion about the cease-fire deal.
    ‘‘We need to understand what the international agreement is,’’ said Archil Rezhabidze. ‘‘All these agreements are agreed only to be broken later. We should not trust them for one minute.’’
    In a report released Friday, Human Rights Watch said it has collected evidence of Russian warplanes using cluster bomb against civilian areas in Georgia. The international rights group urged Russia to stop using the weapons, which more than 100 nations have agreed to outlaw.
    The group said Russian military aircraft killed at least 11 civilians and injured dozens in the town of Gori and the village of Ruisi. Russia’s Defense Ministry denied the claim, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, citing an unnamed official who complained that the organization gathered the information from biased witnesses.
    On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Georgia could ‘‘forget about’’ getting back South Ossetia and its other breakaway province, Abkhazia. The former Soviet republic remained on edge as Russia sent tank columns to search out and destroy Georgian military equipment.
    Georgian officials accused Russia of sending a column of tanks and other armored vehicles toward Kutaisi, the second-largest city in Georgia, then said the convey stopped about 35 miles out.
    ‘‘We have no idea what they’re doing there, why the movement, where they’re going,’’ Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said in a telephone briefing. ‘‘One explanation could be they are trying to rattle the civilian population.’’
    The U.S. said a move toward Kutaisi would be a matter of great concern, but two defense officials told The Associated Press the Pentagon did not detect any major movement by Russia troops or tanks. There was no immediate response from Russia itself.
    U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Thursday that Russia was in danger of hurting relations with the U.S. ‘‘for years to come’’ but said he did not see ‘‘any prospect’’ for the use of American military force in Georgia.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili and Matti Friedman in Tbilisi, Georgia; Mansur Mirovalev in Tskhinvali, Georgia; Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow; Alexander Higgins in Geneva; Carley Petesch in New York; Matthew Lee traveling with Rice; and Terence Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.