KARALETI, Georgia – Russian soldiers prevented international aid convoys from visiting Georgian villages on 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 from visiting villages beyond Russian checkpoints.
Monday's show of authority came as French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried in Moscow to persuade Russia to honor its pledge to pull its troops back to the positions they held before the fighting broke out Aug. 7.
A convoy of four vehicles from U.N. aid agencies waited for about an hour at the checkpoint in Karaleti, but was turned away after a brief discussion with a Russian general who arrived to negotiate. The three aid agency SUVs and a World Food Program truck loaded with wheat flour, pasta, sugar and other staples were headed to Georgian villages around South Ossetia.
"We tried to do a preliminary humanitarian assessment mission. 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," David Carden, who was leading the interagency mission by the World Food Program, UNICEF and the U.N. refugee agency, told The Associated Press.
The Russian general left immediately after the exchange, and a serviceman at the checkpoint said he was not authorized to comment on the reason for the refusal. Russian servicemen said the general was Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, head of the Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia.
An official at the headquarters of Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia said later by telephone later that the U.N. convoy was turned away because no official request for passage had been submitted.
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 U.N. authorities had told the Russian of their plans.
Russian forces on Friday barred the ambassadors of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia from villages beyond Russian checkpoints where they wanted to deliver aid, assess the situation and verify allegations of ethnic cleansing, the ambassadors said in a statement.
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 International, 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.
Russian soldiers toting Kalashnikov rifles were allowing a steady trickle of civilian vehicles through the checkpoint in both directions with little trouble after glancing in the trunks.
Russian soldiers have been stopping at houses in one village 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 the village, said as he crossed the checkpoint.
Georgia and the West have accused Russia of failing to honor its pledge to withdraw its troops under the cease-fire Sarkozy brokered on Aug. 12.
But Russia says those troops are peacekeepers and that they 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.