Russia's military has no plans to leave Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia or the buffer zone around it, a senior Russian military official said today.
"We are not planning to leave anywhere...," Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian military's General Staff, told a news conference, when asked if the Russian military would remain in South Ossetia and the surrounding zone.
Meanwhile, Russian forces today took up positions at the entrance to Georgia's main Black Sea port city, excavating trenches and setting up mortars facing the city despite Russia's promise to pull back troops from territory deep inside Georgia.
Several armored personnel carriers and troop trucks blocked the bridge that is the only land entrance to Poti and another group of APCs and trucks were positioned in a nearby wooded area.
Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised that his forces would pull back by tomorrow, Russian troops appear to be settling in for a long presence, raising concern about whether Moscow is aiming for a lengthy and intimidating occupation of its small, pro-Western neighbor.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told The Associated Press that Russia was thinning out its presence in some occupied towns but was seizing other strategic spots. He called the Russian moves "some kind of deception game."
"(The Russians) are making fun of the world," he declared.
An EU-sponsored cease-fire says both Russian and Georgian forces must move back to positions they held before fighting broke out Aug. 7 in Georgia's separatist republic of South Ossetia, which has close ties to Russia. The agreement also says Russian forces can work in a so-called "security zone" that extends 4.3 miles into Georgia from South Ossetia.
Poti, however, is at least 95 miles west of the nearest point in South Ossetia. It's also Georgia's key oil port.
Russian tanks, trucks and troops meanwhile continued to hold positions around the strategically key city of Gori and in Igoeti, about 30 miles west of the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
The warfare in a nation straining to escape Moscow's influence has sent tensions between Moscow and the West to some of their highest levels since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Polish counterpart signed a deal to build an American missile defense base in Poland. Last week, a top Russian general warned Poland was risking an attack, possibly a nuclear one, by developing the base.
"It's 2008, and the United States has a ... firm treaty guarantee to defend Poland's territory as if it was the territory of the United States," Rice said. "So it's probably not wise to throw these threats around."
A spokeswoman for Norway's defense ministry said Russia had told its embassy that Moscow plans to "freeze all military cooperation" with NATO and its allies. Officials at NATO headquarters said they had not been informed of such a move.
South Ossetia is recognized internationally as part of Georgia, but Russia says the future of the province is up to provincial leaders.
In a sign Russia plans to solidify its control of South Ossetia, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Russia would build 18 checkpoints in the security cordon around the province, with 270 soldiers manning front-line posts.
The parliament of another pro-Russia separatist region, Abkhazia, urged Russia yesterday to recognize its independence. Fighting flared in both regions before Georgia and Russia agreed to a cease-fire.
Western leaders have stressed that Georgia must retain its current borders.
"South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia," US President George W. Bush declared Wednesday in Florida.
In Gori, no Russian troops or heavy weaponry could be seen Wednesday evening, including on the bridges and main access points. Earlier in the day, Russian troops had been strictly limiting access to Gori to residents and turning away foreign journalists.
Shota Abramidze, a 73-year-old retired engineer, said Gori residents wanted the Russians out.
"They've stolen everything. They've bombed everything. This is fascism, that's what this is."
Along the main highway from Gori to Tbilisi, Russian peacekeepers stopped cars and checked documents of passengers. In Gori itself, Russian troops limited access to residents and turned away foreign journalists. In a back alley, dozens of people waited for promised food.
At a military training school in the mountain town of Sachkhere, a Georgian sentry said Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers had shown up the day before and demanded to be let in, leaving only after a 30-minute standoff. He said the Russians vowed to blow up facilities in the village of Osiauri.
Yesterday, Georgia said Russian soldiers destroyed military logistics facilities in Osiauri, but the claim could not immediately be confirmed.
About 80,000 people displaced by the fighting are in more than 600 centers in and around Tbilisi. The United Nations estimates 158,000 people in all fled their homes in the last two weeks — some south to regions around Tbilisi, some north to Russia.