Russian troops remaining in Georgian territory are effectively preventing Georgians from returning to their homes, a U.N. representative said Saturday.
Melita Sunjic, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees in Georgia, said that although it was not clear if Russian soldiers were actually preventing refugees from returning, the warnings by the troops effectively block them.
"If they say 'we can't guarantee your safety,' you don't go," she told The Associated Press.
Some 2,000 refugees are at UNHCR camps in Gori, and possibly thousands of others are in the region, hoping to return to villages that are in the so-called "security zones" that Russia has claimed for itself on Georgian territory.
The zones are near the border with separatist South Ossetia, the disputed province at the heart of the conflict that has ruined Georgia-Russia ties and caused the biggest crisis in Moscow's relations with the West since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Fighting broke out Aug. 7 after Georgian forces launched a barrage on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, hoping to retake control of the province. Russian forces poured in, pushed the Georgians out in a matter of days and then drove deep into Georgia proper.
U.S. senator visits Gori
On Saturday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a member of the chamber's foreign relations committee, visited Gori on Saturday to observe the distribution of U.S. food aid.
The United States has sent substantial aid to Georgia in the wake of the war, using naval ships and military aircraft. Russian officials raised speculation that the military involvement could indicate the United States was seeking to restore Georgia's armed forces, which had received massive military aid from Washington in recent years.
Asked whether the Untied States was considering new military aid, Corker said "these subjects are part of a longer and mid-term discussion" when Congress reconvenes in September.
Under an EU-brokered cease-fire, both sides were to return their forces to pre-war positions, but Russia has interpreted one of the agreement's clauses as allowing it to set up 4-mile deep security zones, which are now marked by Russian checkpoints.
Refugees coming into Georgia from those zones say they are being terrorized, beaten and robbed by South Ossetians.
Georgia has severed diplomatic ties with Moscow to protest the presence of Russian troops on its territory, saying as the West does that Russia is in violation of the EU agreement. Tbilisi announced Friday that diplomatic staff would leave Georgia's Moscow embassy on Saturday, though Georgian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Khatuna Iosana said they had not left as of 6:30 p.m. local time.
"We found ourselves in an awkward situation when a country militarily invading and occupying our country, then recognizing part of its territories, is trying to create a sense of normalcy" by maintaining diplomatic relations, Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said in Sweden earlier.
No bilateral ties anymore
Russia condemned the diplomatic cutoff, which will require Georgia and Russia to negotiate through third countries if they negotiate at all. It makes for a sticky situation because Russia sees Western nations as biased in Georgia's favor. Georgia, which had pushed for a greater role for international organizations, could see it as advantage.
But it may bring little practical change, because there were few signs of any productive diplomacy even before the war.
Trade between Russia and Georgia is also minimal, following Russian bans in 2006 on Georgia's major exports — wine and mineral water — and other products. Only a fraction of foreign investment in Georgia comes from Russia, while a Russian ban on direct flights to and from Georgia was lifted this year but flights halted again as the war erupted.
Russia has faced isolation over its offensive in Georgia and its recognition of South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia. No other country has followed suit and recognized the regions' independence. The United States and Europe have condemned Russia's actions but are hard pressed to find an effective response.
With European Union leaders set to huddle Monday on how to deal with an increasingly assertive Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has angrily warned Europe not to do America's bidding and has said that Moscow does not fear Western sanctions.
Adding to the tension, a lawmaker in South Ossetia said Russia intends to eventually absorb the province at the center of the five-day war.
South Ossetian parliamentary speaker Znaur Gassiyev said Friday that Russia will absorb South Ossetia within "several years" or even earlier. He said that position was "firmly stated" by both the province's leader, Eduard Kokoity, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in talks in Moscow earlier this week.
The statement stoking Georgian suspicion that Moscow's intent all along has been to annex the South Ossetia.
In Moscow, a Kremlin spokeswoman said Friday there was "no official information" on the talks.