US cancels plan to send military ship to Poti

By Jim Heintz
Associated Press Writer / August 27, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia—

The United States has canceled plans to try to dock a military ship carrying humanitarian aid in the Georgian port of Poti, where Russian forces are posted on the outskirts, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said Wednesday.

The ship, the Coast Guard cutter Dallas, was to have come to the Black Sea port Wednesday morning. But embassy spokesman Stephen Guice said the vessel instead will dock in Batumi, a port well south of the zone of fighting in this month's war between Russia and Georgia.

Guice said he did not have information on why the plan was changed.

Poti's port reportedly suffered heavy damage from the Russian military. In addition, Russian troops have established checkpoints on the northern approach to the city and a U.S. ship docking there could have been seen as a direct challenge.

Although Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of an European Union-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general countered Tuesday that using warships to deliver aid was "devilish."

"The heightened activity of NATO ships in the Black Sea perplexes us," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in Moscow.

Many of the Russian forces that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the separatist region of South Ossetia have pulled back, but hundreds at least are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones" inside Georgia proper.

Two of those checkpoints are near the edge of Poti, one of Georgia's most important Black Sea ports. The Russian military is also claiming the right to patrol in the city.

Georgian officials have said much of the port's infrastructure — radar, Coast Guard ships and other equipment — was destroyed by the Russians.

In a move that angered Russia, the U.S. sent the missile destroyer USS McFaul to Batumi to deliver 34 tons of humanitarian aid on Sunday.

The McFaul left Batumi on Tuesday but would remain in the Black Sea area, said Commander Scott Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy.

In Moscow, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff lashed out at the U.S. naval operation.

"We are worried" about aid the way aid is delivered on warships, Nogovitsyn said. "This is devilish."

"This aid could be bought at any flea market," he added.

While he did not link it with the U.S. ships, Nogovitsyn said a unit of Russian naval ships was off Sukhumi — the capital of another separatist Georgian region, Abkhazia, on the Black Sea north of Poti. He said the ships were observing the pullout of Russian troops from Georgia.

Nogovitsyn told reporters that 10 ships from NATO nations were currently in the Black Sea and that eight more are to join them soon.

The United States and other Western countries have given substantial military aid to Georgia, angering Russia, which regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence. Russia has also complained bitterly about aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.