A U.S. ship carrying humanitarian aid has arrived in Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi carrying humanitarian aid for residents of western Georgia displaced by Russia's recent military incursion. From the Georgian city of Gori, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports, authorities are assessing the destruction as Russian troops pull back from some areas they occupied for much of the past two weeks.
The USS McFaul sailed into Batumi Sunday loaded with blankets, bottled water, milk, baby food, diapers and hygiene kits. That was the easy part. The next challenge is to distribute the aid to those who need it.
U.S. Agency for International Development director Henrietta Fore told VOA this week that $13 million of U.S. aid has arrived, and more is coming. But Russian roadblocks are impeding the flow in many places.
"There are still checkpoints on the roads," Fore said. "That to us is an indication that it is not free access for humanitarian supplies or assessments. Through our non-governmental partners, we're able to get to many parts of Georgia, but we need access. So, roadblocks make it difficult for humanitarian assistance to get through to people most in need."
While Batumi is open, the strategic oil port of Poti, 80 kilometers to the north, is essentially closed. Despite a protest march by angry Georgians Saturday, Russia is maintaining roadblocks outside Poti, which is the gateway for merchandise moving to Georgia, other Caucasus republics and Central Asia.
In another development, a Georgian train struck what authorities say was a mine Sunday near the town of Gori, 55 kilometers northwest of the capital, Tbilisi. Russian troops withdrew from Gori Friday after more than a week of occupation, but still maintain a checkpoint on a main road just outside the city.
Georgia's security chief, Kakha Lumaya, tells VOA Russia still controls many of his country's key roads and large chunks of territory, in what the European Union and the United States call a violation of a French-mediated cease-fire Russia agreed to earlier this month.
"What concerns us is that they pulled out some of their troops, they maintain at least eight checkpoints across the region, and another eight or nine in the western part of the country, including areas, which have never been part of any conflict zone, areas where there has never been any Russian military presence, including peacekeepers," Lumaya said.
Lumaya says he has been assured by a senior Russian general that some of the roadblocks would be removed within a few days. But Russian forces will apparently stay in a "security zone" around the Russian-held regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, adding significantly to the amount of Georgian territory they control.
A tour of Gori after the Russian pullback revealed widespread evidence of mayhem and looting, apparently by Russian troops and irregular forces who descended on the town. Videos posted on the internet site, YouTube, clearly show uniformed Russian soldiers smashing in bulletproof glass fronts of banks in Gori's main square, directly in front of a towering statue of the city's most famous native son, former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Mikheil Giorgadze of the TBC Bank examined the destruction.
"Russian soldiers took everything. The computers. Everything," Giorgadze said. "You see the ATM [automatic teller] machine is broken, they were trying take money from these boxes. See they were trying."
Giorgadze says the entire looting episode posted on YouTube was captured by the bank's security cameras.
Gori residents were eager to show visiting journalists the extent of the looting and destruction. They have opened a media center to take reporters on guided tours, including the sites where they say Russian planes dropped cluster bombs in a residential area, and where they say soldiers used electrically charged metal rods to wipe out almost the entire population of a fish farm outside the city.
Girogi Meladze, a U.S.-educated lawyer working at the center, says Russian jets dropped bombs over Gori day and night for a week, forcing residents to flee to the hills above the city.
"They went to the forests up there and they lived in the forests, and we get the first people coming back three-four days ago. The morning of [August] 8 is when everything started," Meladze said. "So, then it was going up and down, up and down, but the planes never stopped from [the] eighth to 15."
Standing in the town square here in Gori, it is hard to miss the irony of the statue of Stalin, peering out over the square at the smashed windows and buildings looted by Russian soldiers.