GORI, Georgia — Russian troops, in seeming violation of a cease-fire agreement set only on Tuesday, embarked Wednesday on what Georgian officials called a deliberate and systematic attempt to demolish what remains of the Georgian military.
The actions ignited an angry response from the United States, with President Bush demanding that Moscow withdraw its forces from Georgia.
The president also announced that U.S. military aircraft and ships would begin delivering humanitarian aid to the former Soviet republic in a "vigorous and ongoing" operation and that U.S. officials would expect unfettered access to Georgia’s ports and highways.
"The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia and insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected," Bush said in a brief White House appearance with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates by his side.
The decision to dispatch aid aboard military aircraft potentially put the United States and Russia on a collision course. Pentagon officials said they were taking pains to make sure that the Russians were fully informed of all U.S. actions toi avoid isunderstandings.
The U.S. action came on a day when Russian troops demonstrated that they could go anywhere they wanted in Georgia, and no one could stop them.
Moving well beyond the supposed truce lines in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, Russian forces occupied the town of Gori, where the Georgians have a military installation. They then moved along the highway toward Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and occupied a second Georgian military base, according to Georgian national security council spokesman Zurab Katchkatchishvili.
In Georgia's west, Katchkatchishvili said, Russian forces burned three Georgian coast guard vessels in the Black Sea port of Poti.
"Clearly their intention is to destroy all military bases and equipment before pulling out," Katchkatchishvili said in a phone interview.
Those movements violated an agreement brokered by France that called on Russia and Georgia to return their troops to the positions they held Aug. 6, before a Georgian attempt to capture the capital of South Ossetia brought hundreds of Russian tanks and thousands of Russian troops into Georgia.
Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian General Staff, told a news conference in Moscow that Russia had not overstepped the agreement. "I can tell you with all responsibility that there are not and cannot be any tanks in Gori," he said.
But a McClatchy reporter saw two Russian tanks positioned on the main route out of Gori on Wednesday afternoon. The Russian soldiers wouldn't allow the reporter to leave on the road leading back to Tbilisi.
Cars that tried to pass from Gori in the other direction, toward South Ossetia, were shot at by Russian troops _ whether they were just warning shots was hard to tell _ positioned near a Georgian military base that also had been overrun.
In the cease-fire agreement, Russian officials had reserved wide-ranging authority to pursue threats on the battlefield, such as military units attacking theirs or advancing in a hostile manner.
But the only Georgians visible in Gori were civilians, many of them elderly.
Russian violations of the agreement also took place in nearby villages, where tall plumes of smoke were visible.
Witnesses said that Russian troops had entered the villages, then allowed South Ossetian militia members to plunder houses and steal cars.
"Our village is burning. They are taking everything out of our houses,” said Dodo Gagnidze, who was standing on the side of the road near Gori. "The Russians said everything was over. Is this what they mean?"
Human Rights Watch issued a statement Wednesday saying that its researchers had seen South Ossetian militias burn and loot Georgian villages on Tuesday. The organization quoted a village official in the Gori area saying that at least three villages had been burned.
There was a distinctly Cold War feel to the conflict, in which Russia was pitted against a former Soviet republic, Georgia.
In recent days, Russian officials have blasted the United States, which backed Georgia's push for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Kremlin has also singled out Ukraine, another ex-Soviet republic with a pending NATO application.
On Tuesday, the leaders of four former Soviet republics _ Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine _ as well as the president of Poland, a former Soviet satellite, joined Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili for a late-night where they vowed never to surrender their independence to Russia.
In Washington, Rice also summoned Cold War imagery in denouncing Russian actions.
“This is not 1968,’’ she said, a reference to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush a pro-Western government.
Both presidential candidates welcomed Bush’s actions and offered further initiatives. Republican John McCain said that Russia’s aggression warrants a reassessment “of the full range of our relations,’’ including possible expulsion from the G-8 and rejection of Russia’s bid for membership in the World Trade Organization.
Democrat Barack Obama said Bush’s assistance package should be followed with broader reconstruction assistance, including emergency economic loans to help Georgians “`rebuild their lives and their economy.” He also called for a review of multilateral and bilateral arrangements with Russia
Angry rhetoric also came from Moscow.
Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian General Staff, when asked about Russian troops in Gori, seemed to taunt THE Georgians with his reponse: "The administration of this town disgracefully abandoned their posts," he said.
The state news service Interfax quoted an analyst saying that, "Moscow will now be listened to and treated seriously. The West has not listened to Russia over the past 15 years."
Interfax also carried remarks from a spokesman for the Russian prosecutor general's office, who said that two captured Georgian soldiers "confessed during an interrogation that the Georgian army had left behind a large number of dead and wounded soldiers as it was retreating."
Both South Ossetian officials and officials of Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway province, said on Wednesday that they now plan to pursue full independence from Georgia.
"We want complete independence, and nothing else," Dmitry Medoyev, the South Ossetian envoy to Russia, told McClatchy. "We refuse to maintain any relations with Georgia's treacherous and criminal regime."
"The rhetoric used by Russia and the U.S. has been scary," said Gennady Gudkov, deputy head of the security committee in Russia's parliament. "All Cold War cliches have been dragged out and used again."
What the next steps would be was unclear. Russian officials confirmed that 19 Russian soldiers are missing in Georgia and suggested an exchange of prisoners could be in the offing. Georgia has not said whether any of its troops are missing or how many Russian soldiers they might be holding.
U.S. officials said a 12-member assessment team arrived in Georgia late Wednesday, along with a C17 loaded with 30 tons of relief supplies and that a second aircraft would be dispatched on Thursday.
Rice was to travel to Paris to confer with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the cease-fire agreement and then travel to Tbilisi to demonstrate American solidarity with Georgia.
On Wednesday afternoon, however, Gori seemed far-removed from a cease-fire. With bursts of AK-47 fire ringing out, residents stumbled around the streets, dazed and often carrying loaves of bread, trying to figure out what to do.
The Georgian military had completely abandoned the town. A small group of Orthodox priests were walking from one block to the next, blessing the ground with holy water in hopes of peace.
Givi Ramazashvili said that the last time he saw Georgian soldiers, "they were scared to death."
On a small country road several miles outside Gori — used because Russians had shut down the main road — eight Georgian soldiers were standing under a group of fruit trees. One of them, a colonel, said he'd seen two columns of Russian tanks — one of them near Gori and the other moving toward Tbilisi.
The colonel, who did not give his name, and his men had only assault rifles. They looked anxious at the prospect of coming into contact with the tanks.
(Lasseter reported from Gori, Landay from Washington. Contributing to this report was Nancy Youssef and Dave Montgomery in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Alla Burakovskaya in Moscow.)