France's ambassador to Tbilisi is being hailed as a hero for his role in rescuing two American children trapped behind enemy lines in a Russian-occupied region of Georgia. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Tbilisi reports diplomats and relief agencies are working to free many other foreigners stranded when Russian forces streamed across the border and captured large chunks of Georgian territory.
Joseph Evans of Howell, New Jersey was ecstatic Thursday after being reunited with his two small daughters at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi.
"This is no doubt the experience of my life… We got 'em home. God bless America. Vive La France," he said.
Evans and his Georgian-born wife Tea-h were home in New Jersey early this month when they heard the news that Russian troops had taken over South Ossetia where their two daughters were on holiday at a rural family farm with their grandmother.
"On our family vacation every year we go to Georgia," he said. "My wife and I left and the kids stayed behind, and they were scheduled to come back on the 26th with grandma. Then everything blew out on the seventh. So I came home from work Friday night, my wife's on the floor, you can imagine, I instantly thought maybe somebody died, and then it connected, and I went, OK, here we go."
The two girls, seven-year-old Ashley and three-year-old Sophia, were effectively trapped. Evans immediately contacted everyone he thought could help, including his Congressman, New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Smith made several phone calls, but soon realized he'd have to be there to be effective, so he jumped on a plane to Tbilisi to find someone who could travel through Russian checkpoints to bring the children and their American uncle to safety. He found French ambassador to Georgia Eric Fournier willing to help.
"American diplomatic personnel are unable to get through the checkpoints, but the French ambassador, Eric Fournier is, so he stepped up to the plate, and we are grateful that he went to their house, put the kids in the car, put the uncle in the car, and drove back from Chirtora," he explained.
The girls' uncle, Beso Tsutskiridze, had earlier flown from his home in the United States in a vain attempt to rescue his nieces. But he encountered a Russian checkpoint at the town of Gori, and fled on foot after Russian soldiers looted his car. He told reporters he had walked 50 kilometers to the farm where the girls were, before being brought to safety by the French ambassador.
"I stuck in Gori, they take everything, clothes money everything, they take everything they like, and say, OK you can go back. So we stuck again there, and they stopped my car, so they start to shoot, and we have to run in the woods and leave car there and take 30 miles to walk through the woods," he said.
Congressman Smith says the happy ending came Thursday at the American Embassy in Tbilisi when the girls were reunited with their father.
"When the French ambassador's car came into the American Embassy, the doors opened up, the kids got out, and did a sprint to their dad and he likewise did the same to them, and it really was an emotional moment. They couldn't have hugged him any tighter," he said.
Officials says scores of other foreigners, including many Americans, are still trapped behind Russian checkpoints, which effectively cut off access to large parts of northern and western Georgia. The International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups are working to bring others to safety.
One aid agency representative who could not be identified because she is not authorized to speak publicly said the best hope is that Russia may decide to honor its commitment to withdraw.