"How long shall we stay in Gori? As long as we want to," the young Russian tank commander replied with casual arrogance. A mile down the road Georgian troops endured the sweltering heat for a second day, waiting for the Kremlin's permission to enter their own city.
There was no sign yesterday of the Russians abiding by their pledge to withdraw from the strategic town of Gori, and hand it over to Georgian forces. Instead, just as Condoleezza Rice was due to speak about Russian withdrawal, an armoured column, escorted by helicopter gunships, moved out of the city to advance a further seven miles inside the country, taking up positions near the village of Igoeti.
The Russian presence in Gori, as well as in Abkhazia and the port of Poti, which is in Georgia "proper", is the reality of Moscow's might on the ground and the symbol of Georgia's national humiliation. By taking Gori and adjoining areas the Russians hold a strategic position little more than an hour's tank drive to the Georgian capital. They have also bisected the country east to west, controlling movement of traffic while positioning themselves close to the BTC pipeline, which carries energy supplies through Georgia to western Europe.
The "peace" agreement brokered by the French government is now widely seen as an act of betrayal. A Georgian officer in an army convoy from Tbilisi which had come to a halt near the remains of a bombed Georgian tank, said: "We do feel let down, do you blame us? What happened to our allies? We do not know what will happen in the future but it looks like we may lose parts of our country."
A Georgian army base near Gori was partly destroyed by the Russians, who also sank five ships and patrol boats off Poti and bombed military airfields.
The campaign group Human Rights Watch also accused Russia of using cluster bombs in civilian areas. The organisation said warplanes had dropped RBK-250 cluster bombs on Gori and the town of Ruisi this week, resulting in the deaths of 11 people including the Dutch television cameraman Stan Storimans. The Russians denied the claim.
Georgian forces, heavily outgunned, have not engaged the Russians, with commanders privately admitting that to do so would have led to further pulverising attacks.
Meanwhile, Ossetian, Cossack and Chechen militias which had entered the region continued to terrorise the local population, looting and burning, adding to the atrocities against civilians carried out by both sides.
The severity of the problem has been acknowledged by some senior Russian officers. Maj-Gen Vyacheslav Nikolaevich Borisov, in charge of Gori, said: "Ossetians are killing poor Georgians, this is a problem and we are trying to deal with it". He said his troops had been ordered to stop the abuse and arrest those responsible. Most of the atrocities occurred in Georgian enclaves in separatist South Ossetia and villages in Georgia proper outside Gori. Around 80 per cent of the population of Gori had fled and the town had been without water and power for three days. Yesterday, the Russians allowed some humanitarian aid to go through, but the numbers of those fleeing the violence continued to grow in refugee camps.
Misha Amashvilli left his home in the village of Karbi in South Ossetia with his family of seven after, he said, his neighbour had been killed by militia. "We have nothing left and we cannot go back home ... our lives have been destroyed and I do not think our government or America can change that."Reuse content