A day after a ceasefire was wrenched from warring Georgia and Russia, there were widespread fears that the fragile truce would not hold amid conflicting reports of looting and Russian troop movements in Georgia.
International attention focused on the strategic Georgian city of Gori, which had served as a launchpad for Georgian military operations into the separatist province of South Ossetia at the start of the conflagration last week. Georgian troops withdrew from the city on Monday.
On Wednesday, FRANCE 24 reporters saw a convoy of Russian armoured vehicles briefly move into position on a hill overlooking Gori, before taking a turn on the road linking Gori to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. It was unclear what their intentions were.
“We bumped into a column of about 30 to 40 tanks, and the same amount of personnel carriers, heading towards Gori,” reported FRANCE 24’s Timothy Grucza. “Hours later, we were waiting one kilometer outside Gori, and they seemed to have turned around and were heading towards the capital.” One of the soldiers travelling with the convoy was waving a Russian flag, Grucza added.
The Georgian interior ministry, in a statement quoted by Georgian radio however, said the column did not appear to be moving towards Tbilisi.
A virtually deserted city
Earlier, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili scorned Russian claims of a ceasefire at a press conference in Tbilisi, saying that bombing and "the worst kind of marauding" were continuing in Gori.
According to FRANCE 24’s team, the city of Gori was virtually deserted Wednesday morning and Red Cross personnel were leaving the town.
Residents fleeing Gori told reporters there were incidents of looting involving South Ossentian rebels inside the city.
Russia's military Wednesday afternoon said their forces were not heading in the direction of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Interfax news agency reported.
"Neither Russian subdivisions nor armoured vehicles are moving to Tbilisi. They have not been given such a task," said General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the Russian military's deputy chief of staff.
The Russian military said its forces were in Gori to disarm Georgian munitions.
Russia accuses Georgia of dragging its feet
Earlier, Russia accused Georgia of dragging its feet on withdrawing forces from front-line positions and insisted the status of separatist Georgian provinces would have to be reviewed. "Georgian forces have begun their pullback towards Tbilisi but no active withdrawal has yet been observed," Nogovitsyn told reporters.
On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Georgian counterpart agreed to a French-brokered peace plan, which included a halt to hostilities and a withdrawal of troops to lines preceding the current conflict.
The war between Georgia and Russia broke out on Friday, following a Georgian military intervention in South Ossetia, a Russian-backed separatist province. According to the United Nations, the total number of people uprooted in the conflict is approaching 100,000.