Georgia says Russia troops blocking refugee return

GORI, Georgia (Reuters) – Russian troops deep inside Georgian territory are stopping thousands of refugees from returning to their homes, a Georgian official said on Saturday.

Russian troops were still manning checkpoints in Georgia and patrolling a Black Sea port even after Moscow pulled back much of the force it deployed to crush Georgia’s attempt to take back two separatist provinces.

Moscow has since recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, drawing a storm of criticism from Western governments. They say the Russian presence in Georgia’s heartland amounts to a partial occupation.

The governor of Gori, a Georgian city occupied by Russian forces during the brief war over South Ossetia, said nearby Georgian villages were still occupied by Russian soldiers preventing residents from returning home.

“The Russians have checkpoints and we still cannot bring these people back home. The threat of paramilitary, irregulars, looting and robbing is still very high,” Governor Lado Vardzelashvili said.

“Apparently the Russian military are not willing to prevent these kind of cases.”

Russia says it is within its rights under a French-brokered ceasefire to maintain peacekeepers in a buffer zone in Georgian territory bordering South Ossetia. In practice the zone covers some ethnic Georgian villages.

Human Rights Watch has called on Russia to investigate reports of burning and looting of Georgian villages by Ossetian militias.

Vardzelashvili said 28,000 people from villages in the Gori region still could not go home. The number could not be independently verified.

A member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, met Vardzelashvili in Gori’s town hall on the main square where the Georgian flag flew at half staff.

Nine Italian Red Cross aid trucks stood beneath a huge statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Gori’s most famous son.

Corker toured a school where U.S. government aid agency USAID and Mercy Corps were looking after 98 refugees and he spoke to residents who said they were unable go home.

U.S. AID said it had brought in more than $30 million of aid so far since the conflict, providing cots, blankets and food to war refugees.

“U.S. PROVOKED CONFLICT”

Two U.S. vessels, the guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul and the Coast Guard cutter Dallas have already delivered aid to Georgian ports. A third vessel, the navy command ship USS Mount Whitney, is under way with a third delivery.

The McFaul and the Dallas scrapped plans to dock in the port of Poti, where Russian troops have set up checkpoints and still patrol over the objections of Western governments.

The use of U.S. naval warships to deliver aid to Georgia’s Black Sea ports has heightened tensions between Russia and Western states, which have rained criticism on Moscow over its invasion of Georgia and remaining checkpoints on Georgian soil.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Friday night U.S. military advisers were involved in the conflict and accused the White House of provoking the crisis to help Republicans win the November U.S. presidential election.

“In a significant way, the crisis was provoked, including by our American friends in the course of the election struggle,” Putin said in an interview with German television ARD.

A senior U.S. diplomat in the region has said Washington pleaded with Tbilisi to refrain from attacking the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and stay out of the conflict.

European Union leaders will meet on Monday to formulate a response to Russia’s actions in Georgia, a key energy transit route and NATO aspirant.

Diplomats have said EU nations were reluctant to impose sanctions and had received signals from the Kremlin that it would retaliate.

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