August 20, 2008 in Nation/World

NATO issues mild warning to Russia

Ex-Soviet bloc countries favor stronger response
By Jonathan S. Landay and Shashank Bengali McClatchy
 
Associated Press photo

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confers with her Italian counterpart Franco Frattini, left, and NATO Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

BRUSSELS, Belgium – NATO declared Tuesday that there will be no “business as usual” with Moscow while Russian forces occupy large parts of Georgia, but it took no decisive action to enforce a demand for an immediate Russian withdrawal in line with a French-brokered cease-fire.

Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, mocked the outcome of an emergency meeting of the 26-nation alliance. “The mountain gave birth to a mouse,” Rogozin told reporters.

In Georgia on Tuesday, Russia continued to display its control over key locations and roads, and despite repeated promises showed no clear signs of a withdrawal. “We have not seen any significant movement,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Russian forces briefly seized Georgia’s main seaport of Poti and continued their grip on Gori, a city northwest of the capital of Tbilisi. In the Poti attack, about 100 heavily armed Russians arrived in six armored personnel carriers and seized at least two dozen Georgian soldiers standing guard. Five hours later, the Russians drove out of Poti in trucks with their captives blindfolded.

Russian forces also removed at least four U.S.-made Hummer military vehicles that port officials said were taken from an adjacent coast guard pier. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the Russian government had indicated it would secure the U.S. equipment. “We certainly expect that the Russians would return any equipment that is U.S. equipment and return it quickly, if, in fact, they do have it,” he said.

The modest outcome of the emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers, called at the request of the United States, reflected divisions within the alliance over responding to the invasion.

Some European powers, such as Germany, have favored restraint, anxious not to aggravate the crisis and jeopardize their energy supplies from Russia. Former Soviet bloc governments have advocated a tougher stance, anxious to deter the Kremlin from believing that it can reimpose its influence over its former empire.

“There are different sensibilities on this. There are states who want this process to move faster,” said Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado. “The alliance has to take a united firm position, but without being aggressive.”

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Turkey is continuing to deny the Bush administration’s request to move the USS Comfort, a hospital ship docked in Baltimore, to the Georgian coast through the Bosporus, a waterway Turkey controls under international agreement.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to put a positive spin on the outcome in Brussels, telling reporters that a statement issued by the foreign ministers “clearly shows that NATO intends to support the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Georgia and to support its democratically elected government.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disparaged the alliance efforts. He told a hastily convened Moscow news conference that NATO “is trying to make a victim of the aggressor, to absolve of guilt a criminal regime, to save a collapsed regime, and is taking a course to re-arm the current leaders of Georgia.”

He said the withdrawal of Russian troops to positions they held before the Aug. 7 invasion depended on a return of Georgian soldiers to their barracks.

“This still hasn’t happened,” he said. “Every day several episodes still occur when our servicemen detain Georgian troops.”

In fact, Russian forces continued Tuesday to occupy a military base at Senaki, in western Georgia, a day after airstrikes left craters in the runway. And in Gori, loud blasts could be heard for much of the afternoon from the nearby Georgian military base, where the Russians have for days been systematically destroying equipment and weaponry.


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