US to airlift supplies to Georgia as Bush steps up pressure

PRESSURE on Russia to end the Georgia crisis was dramatically heightened last night when George Bush, the US president, said the American military would be sent to the region to provide aid.

Amid fears that the ceasefire brokered on Tuesday night is about to unravel, Mr Bush announced that the first delivery, a C-17 military cargo plane loaded with supplies, was already en route as part of a "vigorous and ongoing" campaign that would also see Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, visit the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Mr Bush's brief address from the White House was his first major public announcement since the crisis erupted.

Despite the ceasefire, Russian tanks yesterday rumbled into the Georgian city of Gori and Georgian officials said the city had been looted and bombed.

Unconfirmed reports show the local population is bearing the brunt of reprisals carried out by Russia's allies, the South Ossetian separatists, with Georgians robbed at gunpoint.

However, Moscow has denied violations.

Mr Bush said the US was concerned that Russian units had taken up positions on the east side of Gori, which allowed Russia to block an east-to-west highway, divide the country and threaten the capital.

The US president said he is also worried that Russian forces have entered and taken positions in the port city of Poti, that Russian armoured vehicles are blocking access to the port and Russians are blowing up Georgian vessels.

After talking by telephone to Georgia's embattled president, Mikheil Saakashvili, Mr Bush demanded that Russia end all military activities in the former Soviet republic and withdraw all its forces. He said: "Russia has stated that it has halted military operations and has agreed to a provisional ceasefire.

"Unfortunately, we've been receiving reports of Russian actions that are inconsistent with these statements."

His intervention came as the British government announced a 500,000 contribution to the Red Cross appeal for international humanitarian assistance, to provide extra medical and surgical aid to the injured as well as restoring the water supply in Tskhinvali, the main town of South Ossetia, where the crisis began.

The Ministry of Defence and Washington have also announced they will pull out of a planned naval exercise with Russia, in a clear sign of the increased strain on relations between Russia and the West.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, issued a fresh warning to Moscow to pull back, following an emergency meeting with European Union counterparts in Brussels.

The EU meeting ended with expressions of "grave concern" at the situation and agreement to do more on the ground – including the possible dispatch of unarmed peace monitors to supervise the ceasefire.

Nato foreign ministers will also meet next week to discuss a US call to review relations with Russia as a result of Moscow's intervention in Georgia.

The conflict has uprooted 100,000 people, scarred the Georgian landscape and shattered its armed forces.

Georgian officials said the town of Gori, which sits on Georgia's main east-west road, was looted and bombed by the Russians. To the west, separatists in Abkahzia, also backed by Russian military, pushed out Georgian troops and moved into Georgian territory itself, planting a flag over the Inguri River.

The developments came less than 12 hours after the Georgian president said he would accept the ceasefire deal.

Georgian refugees have streamed into Tbilisi, or the western Black Sea coast, while South Ossetian refugees have headed north to Russia.

Those left behind cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered almost deserted cities.

Russia says 1,600 civilians died when Georgia attacked South Ossetia, though the figure has not been independently verified.

Moscow's military general staff said it had lost 74 soldiers in the fighting, with 171 wounded and 19 missing.

Tbilisi puts deaths on its side at more than 175 Georgians, with hundreds injured.

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