TBILISI, Georgia – In a direct challenge to Russia, the United States announced Tuesday it intends to deliver humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Georgian port city of Poti, which Russian troops still control through checkpoints on the city's outskirts.
The aid will be delivered Wednesday by ship, a U.S. embassy spokesman said.
While Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of an EU-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general countered Tuesday that using warships to deliver aid was "devilish."
"The heightened activity of NATO ships in the Black Sea perplexes us," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in Moscow.
Many of the Russian forces that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the separatist region of South Ossetia have pulled back, but hundreds at least are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones" inside Georgia proper.
Two of those checkpoints are near the edge of Poti, one of Georgia's most important Black Sea ports. The Russian military is also claiming the right to patrol in the city.
An AP cameraman was treated roughly by Russian troops Sunday when he tried to film Russian movements around Poti. Other AP journalists have reported on Russian looting in the city. Georgian officials have said much of the port's infrastructure — radar, Coast Guard ships, other equipment — was destroyed by the Russians.
In a move that angered Russia, the United States sent the missile destroyer USS McFaul to the southern Georgian port of Batumi, well away from the conflict zone, to deliver 34 tons of humanitarian aid on Sunday.
The McFaul left Batumi on Tuesday but would remain in the Black Sea area, said Commander Scott Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy.
A U.S. Coast Guard cutter, meanwhile, was headed for Georgia with a shipment of aid.
Embassy spokesman Stephen Guice did not give details on which ship would aim to enter Poti, but it appeared likely the smaller Coast Guard ship would aim to dock, with the McFaul possibly remaining on guard at sea.
"We can confirm that US ship-borne humanitarian aid will be delivered to Poti tomorrow," Guice said.
In Moscow, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff lashed out at the U.S. naval operation.
"We are worried" about aid the way aid is delivered on warships, Nogoviysyn said. "This is devilish."
"This aid could be bought at any flea market," he added.
While he did not link it with the U.S. ships, Nogovitsyn said a unit of Russian naval ships was off Sukhumi — the capital of another separatist Georgian region, Abkhazia, on the Black Sea north of Poti. He said the ships were observing the pullout of Russian troops from Georgia.
Nogovitsyn told reporters that 10 ships from NATO nations were currently in the Black Sea and that eight more are to join them soon
The United States says its ships are carrying humanitarian aid but suspicion persists in Russia that they are delivering military materiel clandestinely.
The Georgian defense ministry said a Russian large landing ship, the Yamal, was seen in the Black Sea off Poti on Tuesday morning and another was in the sea farther north off Abkhazia, which is also under the control of Russian troops.
The United States and other Western countries have given substantial military aid to Georgia, angering Russia, which regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence. Russia has also complained bitterly about aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.
Although Georgia bitterly opposes the presence of Russian troops surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the country's small military is unlikely to be able to push out the Russian soldiers.
The European Union and the United States have declared that South Ossetia and Abkhazia must remain in Georgia, despite the Russian's parliament's unanimous vote Monday urging Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize the independence of the two separatist areas.
But how much the U.S. and Western Europe, which depends on Russia for oil and gas, are willing to force the issue remains unclear.
In London, British oil company BP PLC announced Monday it has reopened the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which runs through Georgia.
The pipeline, which provides some 1 million barrels per day of Caspian Sea crude to international markets, had been closed for more than two weeks after a fire on its Turkish stretch. Kurdish rebels claimed responsibility for the blaze.
BP's ability to export Caspian oil had been seriously curtailed by both the fire on the BTC line and the fighting with Russia in Georgia.
The London-based company shut down its Baku-Supsa oil pipeline — which runs through the center of Georgia from Baku in Azerbaijan to Supsa on Georgia's Black Sea coast — on August 12 because of security concerns. That line, which had been pumping about 90,000 barrels a day, remains closed.