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Russia Expands Area of Georgia Occupation Toward Tbilisi

Russia's recognition of independence for two breakaway regions of Georgia has sparked fresh attacks against ethnic Georgians living in and around the territories, forcing thousands to flee their homes. VOA Correspondent Peter Heinlein in Tbilisi reports the latest wave of displaced families is putting additional strain on humanitarian aid workers.

The cargo section at Tbilisi airport is humming day and night as forklifts unload planeloads of humanitarian aid from the United States. More than 50 huge military cargo planes have landed here during the past two weeks, carrying $21 million worth of aid.

The cargo is loaded onto trucks and shipped to camps housing tens of thousands of Georgians driven from their homes in and around the breakaway South Ossetia region. Most of the centers for the internally displaced are in Tbilisi and in Gori, 55 kilometers to the northwest, only a few kilometers from what Russia is claiming as a 'buffer zone'.

Aid officials say a fresh wave of displaced families has flooded reception centers in the past 24 hours, forced to flee by Ossetians rampaging through Georgian villages near Gori, after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced he was recognizing the region's independence.

Alex Berianidze arrived in Tbilisi early Wednesday after fleeing overnight from Karaleti village, four kilometers from Gori.

He stood amid piles of crumbling concrete outside an old Soviet-era health clinic being used as a displaced persons' center. While waiting to receive U.S.-supplied aid, he told a harrowing story of masked men bent on destruction swarming into his village the night before, after Russian President Medvedev's recognition statement.

"Starting yesterday it became worse," Berianidze. "Now they are wearing suits and they have masks on their faces and many Ossetians are coming, walking and running from their villages. They are destroying everything there."

Berianidze and other witnesses say Russian troops wearing badges identifying themselves as peacekeepers were present, but did nothing to stop the looting and burning of Georgian villages.

Cisanna Vakhtangashvili, 66, of Eretvi village just outside the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali says she walked past a Russian checkpoint outside Gori in hopes of reaching her home. Through a translator, she tells how she gave up and turned back after deciding it was too dangerous.

"She was going home, walking from Gori when she heard about dead people lying in the street," said the translator. "She just turned around and came back to Tbilisi."

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili says Russian troops and Ossetians irregulars are expanding their area of occupation rather than pulling back as promised in a French-mediated ceasefire agreement.

"Things have gotten really bad since yesterday 3:00 p.m. local time when Medvedev announced he had signed the recognition," he said. "Two-thousand more people were expelled, but this time not from South Ossetia, but from Georgian villages adjacent to South Ossetia."

"It looks like the plan is building a barbed wire fence around Ossetia, and they want adjacent Georgian villages with a population of more than 10,000 people, they want them out, because it probably interferes with their security arrangements," he added.

Utiashvili says Russia has in the past few days expanded its area of control into the Akhalgori heights, 40 kilometers from Tbilisi. He says the enemy presence in Akhalgori vastly increases the capital's vulnerability to Russian attack.

"So far, they have deployed 400 personnel and 16 armored vehicles in Akhalgori and set up two checkpoints, one north of Akhalgori and one south," said Utiashvili. "As yet we do not know whether they have deployed artillery, but we know they have deployed short-range missiles in South Ossetia, Tochka missiles, SS-21 used against Gori and Poti recently. They have put Georgia under the permanent military threat of hitting the capital."

At the airport in Tbilisi, and at Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi, U.S planes and ships are continuing to unload humanitarian cargo. Officials of U.S. AID and the U.N. World Food Program say they are providing assistance to at least 127,000 of Georgia's 4.5 million people.

An 18-member Disaster Assistance Response Team is keeping abreast of the rapidly shifting needs, as some people try to return home and others may be driven out. But this team, made up of USAID professionals flown in from all over world is here for a short time. Officials say given the political reality, the need in Georgia is likely to continue indefinitely.