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Bush, Rice say Russia must quit Georgia

/ Source: news services

President Bush, expressing his concern over Russia's military actions against neighboring Georgia, on Wednesday said he is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Tbilisi to show support for the Georgian government.

"The United States of America stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia. We insist that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected," Bush told reporters in the White House Rose Garden.

Bush said he ordered the military to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia and said Russia "must keep its word" and end the crisis with the U.S. ally.

Rice said Russia 'must end' military operations in Georgia now. She also said Russia needs to respect the U.S. aid effort to help the people of Georgia.

Rice made her comments Wednesday during a news conference at the State Department just hours before leaving on her diplomatic mission to France and then Georgia to help resolve the crisis.

A C-17 aircraft with humanitarian supplies was on its way to Georgia, and in the following days the United States will use military aircraft and naval forces to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies, Bush said, flanked by Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads, and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit," he said.

The crisis erupted last week when Georgia sent forces to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Russian province that threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s. Moscow responded by sending its troops into Georgia.

The United States expects Russia to stop all military activities in Georgia and withdraw forces that entered in recent days from that country, Bush said.

President Bush spent the morning in the White House Situation Room, the nerve center for monitoring international developments, and talked by telephone with Georgia's embattled president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

In a fast-moving chain of events, Rice canceled a news conference and the White House scrubbed its morning briefing with reporters.

Tanks roar south
In Georgia, Russian tanks rumbled into the city of Gori on Wednesday and thrust deep into Georgian territory. Georgian officials said Gori was looted and bombed by the Russians. An Associated Press reporter later saw dozens of tanks and military vehicles leaving the city, roaring south.

While waiting for the results of a European Union initiative led by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the administration and its allies are debating ways to punish Russia for its invasion of Georgia, including expelling Moscow from an exclusive club of wealthy nations and canceling an upcoming joint NATO-Russia military exercise.

Although mainly focused on securing a truce and dealing with Georgia's urgent humanitarian needs after five days of fierce fighting that may have killed 2,000 people, U.S. officials already are looking to next steps, including the pullout of Russian soldiers and new peacekeeping missions in the flashpoint separatist areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"It is very important now that all parties cease fire," Rice said Tuesday. "The Georgians have agreed to a cease-fire. The Russians need to stop their military operations, as they have apparently said that they will. But those military operations really do now need to stop because calm needs to be restored."

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe confidential high-level diplomatic conversations, said European and other leaders have been blunt with Russia that it must withdraw. Russia insists it does not plan a long-term occupation, the official said, but it isn't clear whether Russia has offered a timeline for withdrawal.

"People are saying, 'You know, you cannot stay,'" the official said. "We have been hearing from Russia, 'We don't want to stay.'"

Yet as they pursue those efforts, President Bush and his top aides are engaged in urgent consultations with European and other nations over how best to demonstrate their fierce condemnation of the Russian operation that began in South Ossetia, expanded to Abkhazia and ended up on purely Georgian soil.

"The idea is to show the Russians that it is no longer business as usual," said one senior official familiar with the consultations among world leaders and at lower levels, notably at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Alliance diplomats there met together and then with representatives of Georgia on Tuesday.

The U.S. boycotted a third meeting at NATO on Tuesday at which the alliance's governing board, the North Atlantic Council, was to prepare for as-yet unscheduled talks with a Russian delegation called at Moscow's request, officials said.

In addition, a senior defense official said the U.S. has decided to dump a major NATO naval exercise in the North Pacific with Russia that was scheduled to begin Friday. Sailors and vessels from Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. were to take part in the annual Russia-NATO exercise aimed at improving cooperation in maritime security. But the official said there was no way the U.S. could proceed with it in the midst of the Georgian crisis.

The naval exercise began a decade ago and typically involves around 1,000 personnel from the four countries, officials said. The Pentagon also is looking at a variety of ways it could respond to humanitarian needs in Georgia, but officials have not yet made any final decisions.

In the medium term, the United States and its partners in the Group of Seven, or G-7, the club of the world's leading industrialized nations that also includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, are debating whether to effectively disband what is known as the G-8, which incorporates Russia, by throwing Moscow out, the officials said.

Discussions also are taking place on whether to revoke or review the May 2007 invitation to Russia to join the 30-member, Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which consists primarily of established European democracies, the officials said, adding that Russia's pending membership in the World Trade Organization might also be affected.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have yet been made and consultations with other countries involved were still under way.