Georgian soldiers began moving into the city of Gori Thursday as Russian troops withdrew. Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, was on her way to Europe for peace negotiations over the South Ossetian conflict.
Gori was an epicenter of the fighting
Georgian forces have begun retaking control of Gori as the Russian military pulls out, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told AFP news agency Thursday, Aug. 14.
The handover of the central Georgian city began after a tense first day of ceasefire, with both Moscow and Tbilisi exchanging accusations of breaching the truce.
According to reports, witnesses said that hundreds of South Ossetian rebels, accompanied by Russian military personnel, torched and looted homes near Gori, which is a key city linking Georgia proper with the separatist South Ossetian region to the north.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied claims of looting, saying that his government was "investigating all these reports and will not allow any such actions."
Rice to hold peace talks in Paris, Tbilisi
Georgian forces are reportedly replacing Russia troops in Gori
On Wednesday, Lavrov warned Washington, a staunch ally of Georgia, that it had to choose between a "relatively virtual" relationship with Tbilisi and a "partnership (with Russia) on questions that require collective action."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to arrive in Paris early Thursday to discuss an EU-brokered peace plan with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency. Both Georgia and Russia have tentatively agreed to the plan, which Sarkozy presented in Tbilisi and Moscow earlier this week.
Rice was to continue on from Paris to the Georgian capital later Thursday to hold talks with President Mikheil Saakashvili. She will not visit Moscow, however.
US President Bush on Wednesday urged Russia to abide by the ceasefire agreement.
"To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe, and other nations and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis," said Bush.
Rice visits Paris and Tbilisi on Thursday, but not Moscow
"The United States of America stands with the democratically-elected government of Georgia," he added.
Humanitarian aid arrives in Georgia
Meanwhile, the US military plane carrying medical supplies, shelter, bedding and cots landed in Tbilisi, officials said. Bush said more aid was on its way.
Saakashvili said the humanitarian aid deliveries meant the US military would take control of Georgian ports and airports, a claim quickly denied by the Pentagon.
The Georgian president also criticized the US's initial response to the crisis, saying early statements from Washington on Moscow's push into South Ossetia were "too soft."