KARALETI, Georgia – Russian soldiers blocked international aid convoys from visiting Georgian villages Monday in a blunt demonstration of power in a tense zone around the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
The ambassadors of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia said they also had been barred last week from visiting villages beyond Russian checkpoints.
The French and Russian presidents said later Monday, however, that Russian forces would abandon checkpoints like the one at Karaleti and withdraw to South Ossetia after European Union monitors deploy to the border zone by Oct. 1.
But a convoy of four vehicles from U.N. aid agencies had to wait for about an hour at the Karaleti checkpoint before being turned away after a brief discussion with a Russian general.
The three aid agencies' SUVs and a World Food Program truck loaded with wheat flour, pasta, sugar and other staples were headed to Georgian villages near South Ossetia. The Karaleti checkpoint is on the main road between the central Georgian city of Gori and the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali.
The interagency mission leader, David Carden, said the aid groups had hoped to assess the situation in the villages.
"It didn't work out today as we would have hoped, and we will make every effort to continue to conduct such missions in the future," Carden told The Associated Press.
The general, identified by servicemen as Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, head of the Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, left immediately after the exchange.
An official at the headquarters of the Russian forces said later by telephone that no official request for passage had been submitted by the U.N. agencies. The official, who said he was not authorized to give his name to the media, said aid deliveries must be escorted by peacekeeping forces.
Carden said, however, that U.N. humanitarian authorities had told the Russians of their plans in advance.
On Friday, Russian forces barred the ambassadors of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia from villages beyond Russian checkpoints where they wanted to deliver aid, the ambassadors said in a statement. The diplomats said they also wanted to assess the situation in the villages and verify allegations of ethnic cleansing.
They said the restrictions violated the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations and the cease-fire deal approved by Russia and Georgia, which calls for unfettered access for humanitarian aid providers.
A vehicle from CARE International on an assessment mission on behalf of several non-governmental aid agencies was also turned away Monday, before the general arrived.
Wolfgang Gressman, an emergency response adviser to CARE, said he had been turned away Sunday and told to come again Monday after submitting a list, in Russian, of the agencies involved.
"Unfortunately they sent us back, so we will try something else," he told AP.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. struck a similar note.
"I can confirm that the U.N. will keep trying to send humanitarian missions to the area," U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
"Today, we were attempting to undertake a preliminary humanitarian assessment mission in the area north of Gori, while at the same time delivering some basic relief supplies. The mission was not allowed to move beyond a Russian checkpoint in Karaleti," she said.
Czech lawmaker Lubomir Zaoralek told Georgia's Rustavi-2 television that he and other parliament members were also barred from passing at Karaleti.
Russian soldiers toting Kalashnikov rifles were allowing a steady trickle of civilian vehicles through the checkpoint in both directions.
Russian soldiers have been stopping at homes north of the checkpoint to demand food and drink — asking the locals why they favor the U.S., not Russia, Tamazi Kaidarashvili, an ethnic Georgian who is one of only a few dozen people remaining in his village, said after he crossed the checkpoint.
The international Red Cross helped bring 29 residents of mostly ethnic-Georgian villages out of South Ossetia through the checkpoint, Rustavi-2 reported. One of the refugees, an elderly woman, said Ossetians have been destroying homes in her village.
Georgia and the West have accused Russia of failing to honor its pledge to withdraw its troops under the cease-fire brokered on Aug. 12.
Russia says those troops are peacekeepers and are allowed under the accord to help maintain security around South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway province of Abkhazia. Moscow has recognized the two regions as independent states.
But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after talks Monday with French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy that Russia would withdraw its troops from around South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the deployment of 200 EU monitors, set to occur by Oct. 1.