NATO Officials Head to Georgia in Show of Support

NATO's chief was due to visit Georgia on Monday in a show of Western support after a war that starkly underscored Russian opposition to the alliance's eastward expansion.

The two-day visit by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and ambassadors from all 26 members of the alliance was to include the inaugural meeting of a new NATO-Georgia Commission set up to oversee Georgia's membership bid.

Scheduled before Russia and Georgia waged war last month over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, the trip comes as Russia strengthens its grip over the separatist regions in a challenge to pro-Western Georgia's drive to join NATO.

De Hoop Scheffer said last week that NATO wants to show support for Georgia after Russia's use of "disproportionate force" against its smaller neighbor. He also has stressed NATO's condemnation of Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states last month.

In the wake of the five-day war, NATO said it was making further ties with Moscow dependent on the withdrawal of Russian forces to their pre-conflict positions, as stipulated in a European Union-brokered cease-fire deal.

Russia has said it will maintain nearly 8,000 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia after a promised withdrawal from positions deeper in Georgia next month. The U.S. and EU say that would grossly violate the cease-fire.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, a staunch U.S. ally, has angered Russia by avidly seeking NATO membership. In April, NATO declined to grant Georgia a road map for membership but said it could eventually join, a vow that stoked Russia's anger.

A review of Georgia's request for a road map is scheduled for December.
Saakashvili last week urged NATO not to push his country away in the wake of Moscow's military campaign, which he said was aimed at keeping Georgia out of the alliance and frightening others seeking membership, such as Ukraine.

A show of weakness by NATO would send Russia a message that it can use military force to get its way, Saakashvili told The Associated Press in an interview. Giving in could lead to a "never-ending story" of Russian aggression in its backyard, he said.

On Friday, de Hoop Scheffer said NATO had "fundamental differences" with Russia "before they were embarking on disproportionate force in Georgia" but that the alliance does not consider Russia a threat.

The war began on Aug. 7 when Georgian forces launched an attack to regain control over South Ossetia. Russia responded by sending in troops which repelled the offensive and then pushed deep into Georgia in five days of fighting that killed hundreds of people and displaced some 192,000.

Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia then deepened its worst confrontation with the U.S. and Europe since the Cold War.

After an initial withdrawal from forward positions last month, Russia pulled out of the Black Sea port of Poti and other positions in western Georgia over the weekend as part of an additional agreement reached by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the original EU peace plan.

Moscow has pledged to withdraw all other forces now on Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia within 10 days of the deployment of EU monitors who are supposed to be in place by Oct. 1. But it is also pushing to keep Western monitors away from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

At a tent camp housing more than 2,000 displaced people in Gori, a central Georgian city near South Ossetia, families wondered Sunday whether they would ever return home for good.

Nanuli Okroperidze, 45, who lives in Tent 85 with her mother, four children, two grandchildren and two other relatives, said her home and many others belonging to ethnic Georgians in their village in South Ossetia, Disevi, have been set on fire.

"It's gone, burned to ashes," she said.