Bridge blast severs Georgia

The Baltimore Sun

IGOETI, Georgia - Even as Russia signed a cease-fire agreement with Georgia yesterday, its troops destroyed a key railroad bridge that links the Caucasus region to the Black Sea coast, effectively cutting off east-west transportation routes through the country, the Georgian Foreign Ministry announced.

Russia denied blowing up the bridge, calling the charge "another unverified allegation" in the wake of large-scale fighting over a pro-Moscow separatist republic.

A Los Angeles Times photographer traveling in the area yesterday saw explosives attached to the underside of a nearby railroad bridge, but it was still intact.

The blast in the Kaspi region forced Azerbaijan to suspend the transport of crude oil to Black Sea ports and stranded 72 Armenia-bound freight cars in Georgia, Interfax reported.

The bridge attack came as Russian soldiers dug into strategic posts along the country's main roadway, setting up gun positions, camouflaging their hardware with tree branches and hiking on foot into the hills.

Russian soldiers interviewed between the garrison town of Gori and the capital, Tbilisi, said they had been deployed to protect the road.

Tanks flying Russian flags were parked in this small town, about 25 miles from the capital, for most of the day.

A Russian tank convoy that streamed from Gori to Igoeti yesterday afternoon left fields burning in its wake, apparently set on fire by Russian troops. By late afternoon, the Russian tanks had fallen back but were holding positions at the edge of the nearby Lekhura River.

Russia's aggressive troop movements in Georgia proper call into question its commitment to a cease-fire, Georgian and international officials said yesterday.

"I don't see why they signed it if they don't want to implement it," said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, who was trying to make his way from Tbilisi to Gori to evaluate the state of the cease-fire.

But Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told reporters that the Russian troops might stay put in Georgia for some time.

Any departure would come gradually and would depend upon "extra security measures" for Russia's soldiers in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, Lavrov said. Asked how long the withdrawal would take, Lavrov replied, "As much as is needed," Interfax reported.

"This does not depend on us alone because we are constantly coming up against some problems on the Georgian side," he said. "Everything depends on how effectively and quickly these problems are solved."

Last week's fighting has ramped up tensions between Russia and the West and soured relations between Moscow and Washington to a degree not seen since the Cold War.

The mutual frustration will probably intensify as Russia and the United States square off diplomatically over the fate of South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway republic, Abkhazia.

Washington has called for Georgia's borders and territorial integrity to be respected. Moscow has vowed to back the republics' drive for independence, which critics regard as a veiled annexation of the former Soviet lands.

President Bush said yesterday that Russia could not claim the republics. "There is no room for debate on this matter," he said.

For the time being, Russia's troop movements in Georgia are being scrutinized for hints of Moscow's intentions. "If they violate their own agreement, that has even more serious consequences," said Richard Holbrooke, a prominent U.S. diplomat now in Georgia. "Each hour, each day, is a test."

Georgia's Foreign Ministry said yesterday that Russian-backed separatists from the province of Abkhazia have seized 13 villages in Georgia and a power plant.

A ministry statement says Russian army units and separatist militants shifted the border of Abkhazia toward the Inguri River. It says they set up temporary administration in 13 villages and put the Inguri hydropower plant under separatist control.

The claim could not immediately be independently confirmed.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Young democracies of Eastern Europe wary of Russia. PG 4A

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