IGOETI, Georgia (Reuters) – A Russian military convoy advanced to within 55 km (34 miles) of Tbilisi on Friday, a Reuters witness said, in the deepest incursion since conflict with Georgia erupted last week.
The advance by some 17 armored personnel carriers (APCs) and about 200 soldiers coincided with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to secure Georgia’s signature on a French-brokered peace plan to end the fighting.
Initially 10 APCs moved along the main highway from the Russian-occupied town of Gori, 25 km (15 miles) from breakaway South Ossetia, before stopping in the village of Igoeti. Several APCs headed down side roads and seven more arrived later.
The exact mission of the incursion was not clear.
At a news conference after President Mikheil Saakashvili signed the agreement, Rice called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces.
The vehicles advanced unimpeded by Georgian police and army stationed along the road. A Reuters correspondent saw a military ambulance, snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.
The convoy was initially shadowed by three low-flying Russian combat helicopters, which later left.
Russian troops this week pushed out of South Ossetia as far as Gori in a counter-offensive to drive out Georgian forces who had tried to recapture the separatist South Ossetia region.
Moscow declared a halt on Tuesday to military action but says it is securing Georgian military installations and abandoned arms dumps.
On Thursday, Russian troops were spotted in Gori, the Black Sea port of Poti, and the western town of Zugdidi, which lies near another breakaway region, Abkhazia.
Georgia has been calling for the Russian troops to pull back from Gori, alleging that irregular militias from over the border in the North Caucasus have moved in behind them and are looting and burning Georgian villages.