WASHINGTON: Russia has moved short-range SS-21 missile launchers into South Ossetia since fighting there came to a halt, possibly putting the Georgian capital Tbilisi in range, US officials said yesterday.
The development came amid signs that Russia was adding ground troops and equipment to its force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, strengthening its hold over the breakaway regions, officials said.
“We are seeing evidence of SS-21 missiles in South Ossetia,” a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The White House would not comment on the status of the Russian forces.
“But let me be clear: If it rolled in after Aug. 6, it needs to roll out,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
“That would be in keeping with the Russian commitment on withdrawal,” he said as US President George W. Bush spent time on his Texas ranch. Without confirming that a Russian buildup was under way in the enclaves, a Pentagon spokesman said, “Anything such as that or any other military equipment that was moved in would be in violation of the cease-fire and should be removed immediately.”
“The only forces that are permitted to remain under the cease-fire agreement are the forces that were in there at the Aug. 6 time frame” before the conflict erupted, said spokesman Bryan Whitman.
A second US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said several SS-21 launchers and associated equipment entered the enclave after the fighting came to a halt last week. The New York Times, which first reported on the move, said they entered South Ossetia on Friday.
Both officials said the short-range missiles should be capable of targeting Tbilisi.
“We're seeing them solidify their positions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” the defense official said, adding that “more troops and more equipment” were evident in the enclaves.
The defense official said at least 10 battalions of Russian troops were in the enclaves and in Georgia. The US official put the number of Russian troops at close to 15,000.
But the defense official said it was “hard to say” whether Russia has begun pulling any troops out of Georgia and back into the enclaves. “I can't say whether they are actually moving people out right now or not, but we do expect them to start moving out. We expect them to move out slowly, so this may take some time,” he said. It was unclear whether the SS-21s were the first to enter Georgian territory.
Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Jeffrey said a week ago that President George W. Bush, in Beijing at the time for the Olympic Games, was immediately notified on Aug. 8 “when we received news of the first two SS-21 Russian missile launchers into Georgian territory.” Bush then immediately met with Russian President Vladimir Putin about it at the Great Hall of the People, Jeffrey said.
Russia announced yesterday it had begun withdrawing its troops under a six-point cease-fire plan. But neither Georgia nor wary and openly impatient Western powers saw any evidence of the tanks, trucks and troops leaving.
Georgia's Interior Ministry said Russian forces had been blowing up stores of Georgian ammunition and weaponry at a base near the western town of Senaki in their drive to weaken Georgia's 29,000-strong army. Spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Moscow’s troops had also destroyed the runway at the base, about 240 km west of the capital Tbilisi.
“They are destroying everything and then pulling out of these places,” he said. “If they call this a pullout, then I do not understand the meaning of the word.”
Three explosions were heard in Senaki yesterday. Similar blasts echoed near the strategically important town of Gori, in central Georgia.
At a military checkpoint near Gori, seized by Russian forces a week ago, soldiers in helmets stood next to a chicane of concrete blocks and checked the boots of cars, asking drivers for identity documents.
Further along the road, armored vehicles, trucks and tanks stood in orderly fashion in fields, covered by camouflage tarpaulin. Asked how long he expected to be at his post, one young soldier from the town of Volgograd said: “We don't know. Our orders are to stay here.”
In Moscow, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn of the General Staff said a pullout had begun but did not give a timetable for how long it might take.
“I can say for certain when the New Year will come but I cannot give an exact date for the withdrawal of our troops from the conflict area yet,” Nogovitsyn said. “I can only say that we will not be leaving as fast as we came.”
Gori commands the country's major east-west highway and rail link as well as the approaches to Russian-backed South Ossetia. It will be central to the withdrawal.
The Gori road bears the signs of 10 days of fighting and Russian military movements, the sun-baked asphalt churned up in places by the passage of tanks.
Georgian television showed Russian tanks crashing through a barricade of police cars on a narrow street in the village of Igoeti, half way between Gori and Tbilisi. One car, hitched onto the side of the tank was dragged about 100 meters along the road. The drivers were not inside.
Television showed a policeman and Russian officer locked in a heated dispute about the clearing of the street of cars.