GORI, Georgia – Russian troops searched selected cities, forests and fields in Georgia on Thursday, looking for military equipment left behind by Georgian forces. In Moscow, Russia's foreign minister declared Georgia could "forget about" regaining its two separatist provinces.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he saw no need to invoke American military force in the war between Russia and Georgia but warned that U.S.-Russian relations could suffer lasting damage if Moscow doesn't retreat.
"The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," said Gates. "I see no reason to change that approach today."
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The latest developments presented a huge challenge to the EU-sponsored cease-fire agreement designed to end seven days of fighting. The accord had envisioned Russian and Georgian forces returning to their original positions.
"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," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters as Russia's president me in the Kremlin with the two separatist leaders. The comments and meeting were a clear sign that Moscow is considering absorbing South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Bush administration said it will ignore the "bluster" from Russia about the future of separatist regions.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was headed to Georgia to ask the U.S. ally to to sign a cease-fire agreement with Russia that includes apparent concessions to Moscow but preserves Georgian borders, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The pact fleshes out a French-brokered agreement, worked out this week, giving Russian peacekeepers the express right to patrol beyond South Ossetia, the disputed border region at the heart of the conflict.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the pact is not finalized, said there are important clarifications still to be made and the U.S. would support more powers for the Russian peacekeepers only if they were limited, well defined and temporary.
"The United States of America stands strongly, as the president of France just said, for the territorial integrity of Georgia," Rice said after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Still, analysts said there were holes in the EU plan to end the war between Georgia and Russia.
Robert Hunter, former ambassador to NATO under President Clinton, said the EU plan has halted much of the fighting but hardly commits the Russians to much.
"As it stands, this proposal leaves the Russians in total control," he told the AP in New York. "There is nothing in here about the inviolability of Georgia's frontiers," which he said lets Russia move forward on absorbing the separatist regions.
The war has raised concerns among other former Soviet bloc nations, many of which are skeptical of a resurgent Russia. On Thursday, Poland and the United States reached an agreement that will see a battery of American missiles established inside Poland.
"Poland and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at some point later — it is no good when assistance comes to dead people. Poland wants to be in alliances where assistance comes in the very first hours of — knock on wood — any possible conflict," Prime Minister Donald Tusk said.
Relief planes swooped into the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with tons of supplies for the estimated 100,000 people uprooted by the fighting. U.S. officials said their two planes carried cots, blankets, medicine and surgical supplies — but the Russians insinuated that Georgia's U.S. ally might have sent in military aid as well.
Russia's deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said he wasn't sure that the U.S. planes carried only humanitarian cargo. "It causes our concern," he said.
U.S. officials rejected the claim.
Georgia, bordering the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia has distributed passports to most in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and stationed troops they call peacekeepers there since the early 1990s.
Georgia's Interior Ministry accused Russia of using Iskander short-range missiles on the Black Sea port of Poti and in the strategic central city of Gori. Ministry official Shota Utiashvili showed reporters images of what he said were shrapnel and remains of the missiles.
There was no immediate response from Russian officials.
Russian troops and Georgian troops briefly patrolled Gori together on Thursday before relations between the two sides broke down and the Georgians left. At least 20 explosions were heard later near Gori, along with small-arms fire. It was not clear whether it was renewed fighting or the disposal of ordnance from a nearby Georgian military base.
Gori, battered by Russian bombing even before Tuesday's cease-fire, lies on Georgia's main east-west road only 60 miles west of Tbilisi.
Earlier, at a checkpoint outside Gori, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said Georgian engineers and special forces were combing the area for Russian mines.
"We are cleaning roads because we have information that there are some mines," he told AP.
A Russian envoy later denied that any roads around Gori were mined.
AP television footage showed Russian troops inside and outside Gori, with plumes of black smoke rising from behind a forest.
Nogovitsyn said Russian troops went into Gori to establish contact with its civilian administration and to take control over military depots abandoned by the Georgian forces. "The abandoned weapons needed protection," he said.
Danish journalists said drunken South Ossetia militiamen fired shots into the ground before them and a UNHCR representative Thursday as Russian tanks blocked them from entering Gori. One journalist had his television camera seized.
In Vienna, Victor Dolidze, Georgia's ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Russian troops were looting the Georgian military base in Senaki, as well Poti.
The Russian envoy to OSCE, Vladimir Voronkov, strongly denied Dolidze's other claim, that Russian troops had laid mines in Senaki and Poti.
An AP Television News crew heard explosions Thursday at a military base in Senaki and were told by officials from both sides that the Russians were destroying ordnance. Dozens of Russian armored vehicles and troops later set up for the night on the main road from Senaki north to Zugdidi.
Russian troops operated with confidence Thursday in and around Poti, the site of Georgia's key oil terminal. Georgia's coast guard said Russian troops burned four Georgian patrol boats in Poti on Wednesday, then returned Thursday to loot and destroy the coast guard's radar and other equipment.
Georgian port authorities told an AP television crew in Poti that Russian troops were at the Poti docks early Thursday and APTN saw a destroyed Georgian military boat about 60 feet long.
The same APTN crew followed Russian troops on the outskirts of Poti as they searched a field and a forest at an old Soviet military base for possible Georgian military equipment.
Nogovitsyn would not comment on the Russian presence in Poti, saying only that Russian forces were operating within their "area of responsibility." He also shrugged off as "nonsense" Ukraine's order restricting Russia's navy from moving freely in Ukraine's Black Sea waters.
Another APTN camera crew saw Russian soldiers and military vehicles parked Thursday inside the Georgian government's elegant gated residence in the western town of Zugdidi. Some of the Russian soldiers wore blue peacekeeping helmets, others wore green camouflage helmets, all were heavily armed. Other Russian troops patrolled the city.
"The Russian troops are here. They are occupying," Ygor Gegenava, an elderly Zugdidi resident told the APTN crew. "We don't want them here. What we need is friendship and good relations with the Russian people."
Georgia wants the Russians out, but Medvedev has insisted they stay.
In his meeting with leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Medvedev reiterated Moscow's longtime position that the separatist regions should be allowed to choose their own affiliations.
The United Nations estimates 100,000 people have been uprooted by the fighting, including 12,000 South Ossetians who fled north into Russia.
In Tbilisi, displaced Georgians set up tents at a makeshift refugee camp, hanging washing on lines and rolling out mattresses and bedding.
"We have no beds, six of us are sleeping on the floor. We don't have anything left," a Georgian woman named Manana told an APTN crew. She would not give her last name, fearing reprisals.
A similar refugee camp was set up in Alagir, in Russia's North Ossetia province, for South Ossetians who had fled.
In London, BP PLC said it resumed pumping natural gas Thursday through one Georgia pipeline, but two oil pipelines in Georgia remain closed.