Russian armored vehicles taking to the road outside Gori on Friday. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Russians consolidate positions in Georgia

IGOETI, Georgia: The highway heading west from Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, has been one of the country's main development projects under President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose government has been fond of calling it the "Sukhumi Highway."

The nickname is a reference to the capital of the separatist enclave of Abkhazia, which Saakashvili had hoped to wrest from Russian influence and bring under Georgian control.

On Friday, the road flowed the opposite way. Russian armor used it to travel nearly to the edge of the Georgian capital.

The unexpected military advance demonstrated anew the powerlessness of Georgia's security forces, which had no influence over the move even as it coincided with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with Saakashvili.

As that meeting was occurring, a Russian armored infantry company rumbled to life in Gori, the city in central Georgia that Russia has occupied in the days since the cease-fire was declared.

It was a column of armored personnel carriers. Its soldiers said they were members of the 71st Motorized Rifle Regiment and had been deployed from Chechnya. It drove unchallenged, stopping here, about 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, from the Tbilisi line.

The soldiers then blocked Georgia's main highway, on which traffic has essentially ceased. It was the closest the Russian Army had moved to Tbilisi, and appeared to be a symbolic military rebuke to President George W. Bush, who has demanded that the Russians withdraw.

The remnants of the Georgian Army, along a narrow front a short distance down the road, maintained their positions silently. The bewildered Georgian police soon intermingled with the Russians. They carried assault rifles but had no weapons to resist the massed armored vehicles.

The cease-fire held, but Georgia and the West were left guessing at Russia's intentions. "We don't know what exactly they are going to do," said Colonel Irakli Pirtsalava, a Georgian police supervisor who watched from a few paces away as the Russians ate field rations and smoked.

Western news agencies reported Saturday that the Russians were pulling back from Igoeti, leaving behind the shallow foxholes they had dug.

The advance was one part of the Russian Army's movements that Russia says are approved by the cease-fire agreement and Georgia says are not.

Russian soldiers remained in Zugdidi and Senaki in western Georgia, and another armored patrol roamed the roads to Abasha, near Kutaisi. A large contingent still held Gori, astride the country's most important road.

The Russian military also appeared to have confiscated 16 coastal security boats - large, inflatable vessels with outboard engines - and was seen towing them on the road outside Poti, a Black Sea port.

Georgia's Interior Ministry said Saturday that Russian troops had blown up a railway bridge in the Kaspi region, about 45 kilometers west of Tbilisi, Reuters reported. A ministry spokesman, Shota Utiashvili, said the action was "paralyzing the Georgian rail network."

Whether the move toward Tbilisi had tactical as well as political purposes was not clear; Russian officers gave vague, or different, reasons for it.

Major General Vyacheslav Borisov, a Russian officer who has called himself the region's "commandant," briefly appeared at nightfall and suggested that under one interpretation of the cease-fire agreements, the area could be part of a peacekeeping zone. He offered no insight into when the army might withdraw. But the general noted that he and his entourage were unarmed. "Everything will be normal; don't panic," he said. "We are five people without weapons."

Still, the advance appeared to create new security risks.

Since Russia invaded Georgia and occupied the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, looters and armed gangs in uniform - many of them apparently Ossetians, Chechens and Cossacks - have operated behind the army's path, ransacking villages largely vacated by fleeing civilians. The push to Igoeti opened a new security vacuum between Gori and here, creating fresh targets for these roaming bands.

One exhausted old man sat on the road. He said he had walked about 100 kilometers in two days to escape the looters, and had seen burning villages along his path. "It is not going to get better," he said. He asked that his name not be published, out of fear. Then he stood and limped down the shrinking band of highway between Russian troops and the capital.

Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Poti, Georgia.

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