(AFP) – Aug 27, 2008
BATUMI, Georgia (AFP) — A second US naval ship carrying aid to Georgia arrived in the southern port city of Batumi on Wednesday, avoiding another port where Russian troops are still operating.
The white-hulled US Coast Guard Cutter Dallas docked in Batumi at 11:45 am (0745 GMT) carrying aid for those displaced in the conflict with Russia, an AFP correspondent reported.
The US embassy in Tbilisi had announced on Tuesday that the ship would dock in the port city of Poti to the north, where Russian troops are still present, but it later retracted that statement.
The Dallas started unloading its cargo to the strains of Georgian folk music and dancing as onlookers shouted "USA! USA!" and waved American and Georgian flags.
Russia has criticised Washington's decision to send two US warships and the coast guard cutter to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia, where Russia sent troops and tanks this month.
"Normally battleships do not deliver aid and this is battleship diplomacy, this does not make the situation more stable," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on Tuesday.
"I hope people who deliver humanitarian aid would be choosy about how they deliver it."
Russia has sent a group of its own warships to the capital of the Russian-backed rebel region of Abkhazia, less than 200 kilometres (125 miles) north along the Black Sea coast, Russian media reported.
A larger vessel, the destroyer the USS McFaul, had arrived in Batumi on Sunday, prompting Moscow to charge that the West was using humanitarian aid as a "cover" for a buildup of forces in Black Sea.
There was no information about the whereabouts of the USS McFaul, which was not to be seen around Batumi port.
According to the US military, the Dallas was carrying hygiene items like toothbrushes and soap, food, milk and juices to help the tens of thousands of people the United Nations estimates have been left displaced by the conflict.
The US embassy had said both the USS McFaul and the Dallas would dock on Wednesday in the port of Poti, further to the north, but later that day said it was unable to confirm the plan.
The prospect of the two ships docking in Poti had sparked fears of a stand-off as Russian troops are still patrolling the city and maintaining checkpoints outside.
But a US embassy official in Tbilisi suggested US ships would stay away from Poti for the time being.
"We are not aware of any plans for ships to go to Poti today," said the official, who declined to be named.
Moscow says it has the right under the French-brokered deal that ended fighting between Russia and Georgia to maintain an "area of responsibility" far into Georgian territory, including in and around Poti.
Batumi, a large Black Sea resort and port close to the Turkish border, lies well outside the area where Russian troops have been operating.
A group of Russian warships, including the missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, arrived Wednesday in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi to the north, Russian news agencies reported.
The ships are there to "support peace and stability in Abkhazia and in the republic's territorial waters," Deputy Admiral Sergei Menyailo was quoted as saying.
"Our tasks include the control of Abkhazia's territorial waters and the prevention of arms shipments" as well as delivering humanitarian aid, he said.
Russia's Vesti-24 television showed Abkhaz separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh welcoming the ships in a festive ceremony with wine and folk dancing.
"Welcome to Abkhazia! Make yourself at home," Bagapsh was shown telling a white-uniformed Russian navy officer.
Russia sent tanks and troops into Georgian territory in response to a Georgian offensive on August 7 to retake South Ossetia, a breakaway region backed by Moscow. More troops then poured into Georgia through Abkhazia.
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