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Georgia Cease-Fire Shaky As Russian Troops Stay

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The cease-fire between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia remains shaky. Russian troops are still in the key Georgian city of Gori. The U.S. is standing firmly with its ally Georgia. It's sending tons of humanitarian aid to Georgia, as well as diplomatic muscle in the form of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In a moment, we'll hear more about the U.S. humanitarian and diplomatic intervention. But first, we're joined by NPR's Ivan Watson, who is on the road on the outskirts of Gori. And Ivan, what is the situation there today? Does it appear that Russian forces are actually withdrawing as promised?

IVAN WATSON: No. The Russians are not withdrawing, and they are not allowing Georgian forces to go in. I'm hearing explosions on a hill and smoke rising up just above me as I speak, Renee. The long the short of it is the Russians are not allowing the Georgian security forces to go into Gori, and it's been a very tense morning, where you have hundreds of Georgian soldiers that are just a few hundred yards away from a Russian checkpoint at the entrance to town where there are several Russian tanks parked and a number of soldiers arrayed in the woods around there.

There have been negotiations between the two sides, but those broke down at one point. And then the Georgians tried to advance anyway in a column of cars full of soldiers. The Russians immediately went on alert, they cocked their weapons and pointed them at the Georgians, and this very tense standoff then erupted. Let's take a listen to the recording of what happened just a few hours ago.

After several hours of relative peace, suddenly, the Russians are on alert and are pointing their weapons and advancing in formation up the road towards the Georgian military positions. There's a man in - riding on top of the tank, pointing his AK-47 down the road, and they're followed by more Russian soldiers right now.

Now, fortunately, Renee, no shots were fired in what was a very tense moment between the two militaries. Now, the Georgians have pulled back a little bit. There had been some more negotiations between the soldiers from both sides. But then just now, a couple of Russian-backed militia fighters who eyewitnesses say were drunk walked past the Russian checkpoint and proceeded to steal at least one car just belonging to a TV company next to the Russian tanks. And in that moment, there was a shot fired in the air, and I'd say 40 or 50 journalists fled the scene and have pulled back to the Georgian frontlines.

So, again, in a very adrenaline-filled morning, and the Russians indicating they are not going to hand this town over to the Georgians today.

MONTAGNE: Is it odd for you, Ivan, to be there with Georgian and Russian forces standing there, effectively, side by side?

WATSON: It is very strange because at moments throughout the morning, the Russians and the Georgians have been speaking in Russian, shaking hands, sharing cigarettes and seeming very comfortable together. But then where there are problems, when there are breakdown in the negotiations, suddenly you get these moments of tension.

When the Georgians pulled out, there was a large delegation in the town of Gori apparently conducting negotiations with the Russians. When they left, they said the Russians aren't going to hand over the town. The South Ossetians are not going to give it over to us.

And recall that this conflict erupted over Georgia's offensive into the breakaway region of South Ossetia, where there is a rival ethnic group that does not want Georgian rule. And Russia came back, defended the South Ossetians and has since pounded the Georgians and occupied quite a bit of Georgian territory.

MONTAGNE: Well, what more can you tell us about the situation today in South Ossetia?

WATSON: We've gotten reports the Human Rights Watch, a human rights watchdog based in New York, they've had researchers on both sides of the front lines. One of their researchers interviewed a doctor in the main hospital in South Ossetia in the town of Tskhinvali who told them that they had had a total of 44 bodies in their morgue since the start of this conflict last week.

Now that does not correspond with Russian claims that some 2,000 people were killed in the first 24 hours of the fighting when the Georgians launched their offensive. Human Rights Watch also has documented offenses carried out both by the Georgian military in the first days of their attack and now by Russian and, more importantly, by these irregular Russian-backed forces in the past week as they've moved into Georgian villages - descriptions of them looting houses, burning houses as well, and even the execution of some ethnic Georgians that they've come across.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, thanks very much for talking with us.

WATSON: You're welcome, Renee.

(Soundbite of car horn)

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson on the outskirts of Gori, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.