Georgian Refugees Seek Aid as Russian Forces Settle In

Russia plans to construct a series of checkpoints manned by hundreds of soldiers

A convoy of badly needed food aid for beleaguered Georgians rumbled through a Russian checkpoint today, waved through by soldiers who themselves showed no signs of fulfilling their president's promise of a pullback within two days.

A top Russian general, meanwhile, said Russia plans to construct a series of checkpoints manned by hundreds of soldiers in the so-called "security zone" around Georgia's de-facto border with the breakaway territory of South Ossetia.

The Russian-backed separatist region was the flashpoint of fighting this month that brought Russian troops deep into Georgia. A cease-fire that calls for both sides to pull back to their positions before the brief war allows Russia to maintain troops in a zone extending more than four miles into Georgia from South Ossetian line.

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian general staff, told a briefing today that Russia will build a double line of 18 checkpoints in the zone, with the posts in the front line to be manned by about 270 soldiers.

The plans clearly show that Russia aims to solidify control of South Ossetia. The province for now technically remains a part of Georgia, but Russia has said it will accept whatever South Ossetia's leaders decide about their future status — which is almost certain to be either a declaration of independence or a request to be incorporated into Russia.

The nine flatbed trucks carrying aid rolled through the Igoeti checkpoint about 30 miles west of the capital, Tbilisi. Igoeti one of the deepest Russian penetrations into Georgia since fighting broke out in South Ossetia nearly two weeks ago.

The Russian seizure of Gori and villages in the region has left thousands of people with scarce and uncertain food supplies. The convoy of aid from the U.N.'s World Food Program could last for a few days.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said his troops will complete its withdrawal from Georgia by Friday, but few signs of movement have been seen other than the departure of a small portion of the troops who have held the strategically key city of Gori, another 25 miles west of Igoeti.

The Russian forces in Georgia appear to be aiming to weaken Georgia's military through the detention of personnel and destruction of equipment before they withdraw as promised.

Georgian officials have said they lost 160 soldiers and that 300 are missing. Russia claims Georgian losses are much higher.

Civilian casualties remain unclear. South Ossetian officials on Wednesday said 1,492 civilians in the breakaway province had been killed.

The investigative committee of the Russian prosecutor general's office on Wednesday confirmed 133 civilian deaths in South Ossetia, but said it could not be sure of a complete figure because many victims had already been buried.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Tuesday that Russia was not only flouting its withdrawal commitment but that its forces were "not losing time" in damaging Georgia by destroying infrastructure.

However, the two nations exchanged 20 prisoners of war — 15 Georgians and five Russians, according to the head of Georgia's Security Council — in an effort to reduce tensions.

On the diplomatic front, NATO foreign ministers suspended their formal contacts with Russia as punishment. Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said "there can be no business as usual with Russia under present circumstances."

But the NATO allies, bowing to pressure from European nations that depend heavily on Russia for energy, stopped short of more severe penalties being pushed by the United States.

The Russian Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, dismissed the impact of the emergency meeting in Brussels, Belgium: "The mountain gave birth to a mouse."

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