ISTANBUL - TDN with wire dispatches
Explosions rocked the strategic Georgian town of Gori yesterday, posing a fresh threat to the fragile truce between Moscow and Tbilisi, amid confusion about a possible Russian troop withdrawal from the area.
In Moscow, Russia's foreign minister declared the world "can forget about" Georgia getting back its two separatist provinces. The declaration from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov came simultaneously with the announcement that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was meeting in the Kremlin with the leaders of the separatist provinces - a clear sign that Moscow could absorb the regions, as reported by The Associated Press. After talks with the Russian president, the leaders of the rebel Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia vowed to push ahead with independence from Georgia.
Even when the fighting ends, Georgia has lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in Russia's view. "One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," Lavrov told reporters.
At least 20 explosions were heard near Gori, along with small-arms fire. It could not immediately be determined if the blasts were a renewal of fighting between Georgian and Russian forces, but they sounded similar to mortar or artillery shelling and occurred after a tense confrontation between Russian and Georgian troops on the edge of the city.
Georgia early yesterday said the Russians were leaving Gori, but later alleged they were bringing in additional troops. Georgian government officials went into Gori for a possible handover of power but left unexpectedly around midday. A Russian general had said earlier it would take at least two days to leave the city. Lavrov said troops were evacuating Georgian weapons and ammunition from a military base in Gori.
Also yesterday, Russia's Medvedev hosted leaders of the de facto governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Moscow where they signed the six-point plan, drafted by France, aimed at ending the hostilities. Medvedev reiterated Moscow's longtime position that the regions should be allowed to choose their own affiliations. "The position of the Russian Federation is unchanged," he said.
The leaders of the rebel Georgian regions vowed to push ahead with independence from Georgia, following talks with Medvedev.
"We will achieve independence in accordance with all of the rules of international law," South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity told a press conference in Moscow, flanked by Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh.
"I can't give a timetable, but it is very realistic," Kokoity said, according to Agence France-Presse.
"The aim (of independence) has been set and we will move toward it together," said Bagapsh. "We think the chances are excellent."Meanwhile U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in France yesterday for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy, broker of a ceasefire accord on the Russia-Georgia conflict, as she was due to head to crisis talks in Tbilisi. Rice's trip comes a day after US President George W. Bush toughened his stance on the conflict, scolding Moscow for attacking Georgia and warning it had put post-Cold War relations with the West "at risk."