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2 N.J. girls reunited with dad in Georgia

/ Source: The Associated Press

Two little girls from New Jersey have been reunited with their father after being trapped by violence in the Republic of Georgia for two weeks.

They arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi after a six-hour ride in a vehicle with French Ambassador Eric Fournier. They were greeted with McDonald's Happy Meals and cake.

Fournier said in a telephone interview that the girls, 7-year-old Ashley and 3-year-old Sophia Evans, got through a checkpoint in the town of Gori after getting permission to keep traveling from a Russian general.

The girls' father, Joseph Evans, said they'll be back home in Howell — and reunited with their mother — within a few days.

Ashley Evans, who is about to start second grade, says she misses "everything" about being home.

"We're all on clouds over here," said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, who orchestrated the girls' passage.

The girls, whose mother grew up in Georgia, have spent a part of most summers there visiting their maternal grandparents on their farm.

This summer, their parents took them in June and their grandmother was to bring them to New Jersey on Aug. 26. But Russian troops invaded the former Soviet republic and cut off passage within the country.

Joseph Evans, a New Jersey Transit bus driver, says his younger daughter did not understand what was going on, but the older one did. He said she told him on the phone: "I want to go home, the Russian troops are here."

But he said the girls were able to keep playing on the farm and remained several miles from any violence.

This week, Smith, a New Jersey Republican who has been involved in human rights efforts around the world for decades, flew to Georgia to seek help getting them out. Fournier was willing to help.

Traveling with members of an aid group, he reached them around 8 a.m. local time Thursday. The passage back to the capital included about 10 checkpoints and took six hours, Fournier said.

At the checkpoint where they were stalled, the ambassador started working his phone. "We were calling military, diplomats, everybody," he said.

Finally, he said, a Russian general called and gave them permission to pass.

The U.S. State Department is monitoring about 30 U.S. citizens under 18 who are in Georgia without their parents.

Smith said he wants to set up a corridor for American children, along with the sick and disabled to be able to get out of violent areas.

Joseph Evans said next summer, his daughters might not visit their grandparents. "Man, this is about it for me," he said. "I think I'll take them to the beach next summer."