Russian tanks deter Georgian entry to Gori

Georgia Russia
Russian soldiers block the road on the outskirts of Gori, northwest of the capital Tbilisi, Georgia, on Thursday. Georgia early Thursday said the Russians were leaving Gori, but later alleged they were bringing in additional troops. Darko Bandic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the morning, columns of Georgian police and military vehicles prepared to reoccupy the strategic town of Gori after the expected departure of Russian forces.

By the afternoon, Russian tanks had moved in to put an emphatic guard on the entrance to town. Soon explosions were bursting on the other side of a hill and panicked Georgian troops fled for safety in pickups.

Thursday's standoff reflected just how dangerous the early days of a cease-fire can be, especially when the rules are not clear, accusations of violations jack up tensions and soldiers edgy from combat are in close proximity.

Gori lies just south of South Ossetia, the separatist region where Russian and Georgian forces went to war last week. Russian troops entered the town Wednesday, after the two sides signed a truce calling for their forces to pull back to positions held before fighting started.

Confrontation at checkpoint
Reports of a collapse in negotiations on a handover of the town triggered a confrontation between Georgian and Russian troops at a checkpoint on the main road, a little over a mile from the center of Gori. No shots were fired, but Russian tanks quickly roared up in a display of might that forced the Georgians to pull back.

Near a gasoline station up the road, Georgian officers with binoculars watched as dozens of journalists gathered near the Russians tanks, taping and photographing them up close and attempting to talk to the soldiers.

Staffers from the United Nations' refugee agency and its World Food Program arrived, hoping to enter Gori to assess whether it was safe to deliver humanitarian aid.

South Ossetian militiamen, who are allied with the more disciplined Russian troops, appeared and began shouting at people to clear off. They were highly aggressive, pointing weapons and shoving civilians. One older fighter with a beard fired a pistol in the air.

Shortly after their arrival, explosions began to reverberate from the other side of a hill near Gori. The thumping sounded like artillery shelling, though it was unclear who was responsible and what was being targeted. Plumes of smoke rose over the ridge, and some rifle fire could be heard. Fires began to burn on a hillside next to Gori, shrouding it with smoke.

Georgian journalists said they had been in contact with colleagues in Gori who reported they were unable to leave town and had been robbed of cars and equipment by militiamen. Other reports said Russian soldiers were not harming Gori's civilians, but were destroying Georgian military facilities.

The information was impossible to verify in an atmosphere of great confusion and uncertainty.

When the Russian tanks moved forward to consolidate their control of the entrance to Gori, panic erupted among Georgian soldiers, who piled into their vehicles, some of them civilian models, and raced down the highway leading to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital 60 miles to the east.

Some of the soldiers doubled back to wait for a while. There was no clear sign of leadership among the troops, who took a hammering from Russian artillery and aircraft during the recent fighting.

On one section of the road, dozens of Georgian police officers stood chatting in a cluster on the median, forcing cars to slow and drive around them.

"We don't know what to do. So we're just having fun amongst ourselves," one officer said.