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An uneasy calm in a key Georgia city

As diplomats try to get a cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Russia signed and put into place, an uneasy calm has settled on Russian-occupied  Gori, situated just south of South Ossetia.
Image: Two women talk in a square in Gori
Women talk in a square with a monument to former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the background in Gori, northwest of the Georgian capital Tbilisi,  on Friday. Russian troops allowed some humanitarian supplies into Gori but continued their blockade of the strategically located city, raising doubts about Russia's intentions in the war-battered country. Mikhail Metzel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Under a statue of Josef Stalin, the best-known product of this city, a Russian and a Georgian were discussing the war. The Georgian was wearing a T-shirt and track pants. The Russian was in uniform, holding an AK-47.

The Georgian, Archil Tadianidze, lives in Gori and was talking about militia fighters from the breakaway province of South Ossetia who had joined with Russian volunteers to rampage in and around Gori.

“They killed civilians in the villages,” he said.

“Now we’ve gotten tough with them, but where were your police?” answered the Russian, Andrei Pilipchuk, an Interior Ministry spokesman who had accompanied a handful of journalists here.

“They left,” Tadianidze said.

As diplomats try to get a cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Russia signed and put into place, an uneasy kind of calm has settled on Gori, occupied by the Russians and situated just south of South Ossetia.

Russian armored vehicles rattle down near-empty streets, and the few remaining residents line up for bread and talk with the soldiers, who have restored a semblance of order. Many of the people who are left are rattled or frightened.

Most buildings appear intact, though a few on the outskirts were burned. Electricity is scarce, and there are very few people left, most of them men or elderly. Younger people fled into the mountains or to Tbilisi.

A woman in her 40s named Manana Labadze, wearing a shabby black dress and worn-out shoes no better than slippers, was outside Gori near a Russian-occupied artillery base. She was carrying a bag with a coat and nectarines.

She was so scared and shell-shocked that when she saw Russian soldiers, all she could do was start handing out the nectarines, and read from a small book of poetry she was carrying in the bag.

“My home is over there,” she told a reporter, “but I’m hiding in a basement at my relatives’. I’m scared.”

On Friday, a reluctant Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said he had signed a cease-fire agreement, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had been assured the Russian president would sign an identical document.

The cease-fire would require Russia to withdraw its combat forces from Georgia but allows Russian peacekeepers to remain in the breakaway region of South Ossetia and conduct limited patrols outside the region.

In Gori, the Russian presence is strategically critical: Gori sits along only Georgia’s only significant east-west highway, which means occupying the city allowed the Russians effectively to split the nation in two.

As in many parts of Georgia, aid has been slow to come. On Thursday, staffers from the United Nations refugee agency and its World Food Program hoped to enter Gori to assess whether it was safe to deliver humanitarian aid.

The situation turned ugly. South Ossetian militiamen appeared, pointing weapons, and began shoving civilians and shouting at people to leave the area.

Georgian police had come to enter Gori but turned back when confrontation developed between the Russian military and the Georgian army.

On Friday, Russian military vehicles were blocking the eastern road into the city, although they allowed in one Georgia bus filled with loaves of bread.

Garadzim Tamgiashvili, 46, an unemployed electrician with graying red hair, said there was a lot of looting by South Ossetians and Russians from the North Caucasus before the Russian military arrived. He said they killed civilians.

'A war between the West and Russia'
He said the Russian soldiers told him they planned to “give it to the Americans.”

“We know this is a war between the West and Russia,” he said.

Residents reported atrocities in the villages between Gori and Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian provincial capital. Outside Gori, an Associated Press reporter saw a burning wheat field. In the village of Tirdznise, the body of a Georgian soldier lay swollen in the heat.

But for the moment, Gori itself seemed to be a showcase. The Russian troops had stopped the looting, restored order.

One of the few younger women left was Iya Kinvilashvili, 30, the owner of a now-empty shop. Standing next to a church that has organized handouts of bread and flour, she said the Russians were behaving well.

“When is peace coming?” she asked. “We only want peace. We never wanted this war.”