GORI, Georgia — The United States ramped up the pressure Thursday on Russia to pull out of its conflict with Georgia, amid charges that Russian forces were sabotaging military targets prior to an agreed withdrawal.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while emphatically ruling out the use of U.S. military force, warned that relations between the United States and Russia could be "adversely affected" for years unless Moscow adjusted its "aggressive posture and actions".
Highlighting the "profound implications" for the entire U.S.-Russia security relationship, Gates also said Russia would have to pay "some consequences" for its attacks on Georgia.
In Georgia, a series of explosions were heard around the Russian-controlled town of Gori , and a U.S. official in Washington said Russian troops were disabling military installations as they moved through the country.
A Georgian interior ministry spokesman said Russian forces were "destroying" Gori and laying mines and also demolishing military infrastructure in the Black Sea port of Poti.
A week after Georgia's offensive against the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia unleashed the conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was en route to Tbilisi where she hoped to consolidate the fragile truce brokered Tuesday by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"It is time for this crisis to be over," Rice said following a meeting with Sarkozy in Paris.
A second C-17 US military cargo plane carrying humanitarian supplies arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi , as U.N. officials and aid organisations complained of a lack of access to affected areas.
Latest estimates by the Georgian and Russian governments put the number of displaced people in the conflict region at nearly 115,000.
Armed gunmen held up U.N. workers in Gori on Thursday and stole their vehicles.
Faced with Russian tanks and armoured vehicles, Georgian troops pulled back to positions along the road leading into Gori, as expectations that the Russian military would pull out from the strategic city proved premature.
The town, halfway from Tbilisi and South Ossetia's main city, has become the centre of the battle of wills over the French-brokered ceasefire.
The truce includes a commitment not to resort to force, to end hostilities definitively and provide free access for humanitarian aid.
Russian troops and armour rolled into South Ossetia last Friday in response to the Georgian bid to regain control of the renegade province which broke from Tbilisi in the early 1990s.
Russian troops then pushed on into other parts of Georgia while aircraft bombed targets across the country.
Both sides have traded charges of truce violations, with Georgia's pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili accusing Russia of carrying out "ethnic cleansing" operations around South Ossetia.
Moscow has also accused Tbilisi of atrocities and said it violated the truce by failing to pursue an "active withdrawal" from South Ossetia, where Moscow says 2,000 civilians were killed in the fighting.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held talks with the leaders of South Ossetia and the other Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, after which he vowed that Moscow would act as a guarantor for their aspirations for independence.
In Washington, meanwhile, US President George W. Bush assured his Ukrainian and Lithuanian counterparts of his ironclad commitment to stand with Georgia.
"To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe, and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis," he demanded.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telephoned Rice on Wednesday to insist that Moscow was sticking to the peace plan, and "strongly rejected" suggestions to the contrary, his ministry said.
In an opinion piece published in Thursday's Washington Post, the Georgian president urged the West to send peacekeepers to Georgia.
"Only Western peacekeepers can end the war," Saakashvili said. "I have staked my country's fate on the West's rhetoric about democracy and liberty."
France is shortly to submit a draft U.N. Security Council resolution on the Caucasus conflict, incorporating the ceasefire plan, and the French foreign ministry called Thursday for the council to rapidly adopt the text.
Copyright 2008 AFP