POTI, Georgia — Russian forces briefly seized Georgia's main seaport on Tuesday and carted away about 20 Georgian soldiers in a raid that paralyzed one of Georgia's key commercial hubs for several hours, port officials said.
About 100 heavily armed Russian soldiers aboard six armored personnel carriers overran the port of Poti at about 8 a.m., according to port officials and witnesses. Five hours later they drove out of Poti past helpless Georgian police officers and dozens of anxious onlookers, some of whom gasped at the sight of several blindfolded Georgian soldiers being carried away as prisoners.
Their destination was unknown. What was clear was that Russia, despite President Dmitry Medvedev's pledge to withdraw forces starting Monday, continues to operate freely inside Georgia and appears intent on squeezing its tiny neighbor economically as well.
It was the second Russian attack of the war on the privately-run commercial port on the Black Sea, 170 miles west of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The Poti port handled 7.7 million tons of cargo last year and is a key transshipment point for Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and other countries in the region.
On Aug. 8, Russian planes bombed the main container handling area, leaving three port workers dead and three others seriously injured, port officials said. The attack knocked the port offline for nearly three days.
But most goods haven’t left the port in several days because Russia has targeted Georgia's key transportation arteries. Russian forces control large chunks of the main east-west highway, which runs through the flashpoint central town of Gori, and have destroyed part of the main railway line.
Officials haven't estimated the economic impact of the damage, but Marika Nadaraia, a port spokeswoman, said that attacks on the port amount to attacks on Georgia's neighbors as well.
"The sea port is the gateway to the Caucasus and Central Asia," Nadaraia said. "So is Russia against these countries too?"
Nadaraia said that Russian troops arrested about 20 Georgian soldiers who were guarding the port. All employees were evacuated. Russian forces also destroyed an unarmed Georgian military vessel that belonged to an adjacent coast guard pier and inspected docked commercial cargo vessels from Turkey, Holland and Panama, she said.
The soldiers' capture came as the two countries engaged in a brief exchange of war prisoners — 15 Georgians and five Russians — in the central village of Igoeti. The village is the closest that Russian troops have come to Tbilisi, and the move was expected to reduce tensions.
In Poti, residents who gathered by the roadside to watch the Russian tanks leave their town felt only heartache. Middle-aged men argued with each other incredulously, some women cried into handkerchiefs and teenagers snapped images with cell phone cameras.
A half-dozen unarmed Georgian police — no match for Russian military might — could only stand in the center of the road, directing traffic as the tanks pulled out of the port and turned onto a highway leading out of the city.
"All the world is supposed to be supporting us. But where is that power?" said Katrin Pachoulia, a middle-aged resident with tears welling in her eyes. "No one can stop this aggression from Russia."
A McClatchy reporter counted more than two dozen blindfolded men in full or partial Georgian military uniforms being carried away by the Russian soldiers. The Russian convoy also included at least four U.S.-made Hummer military vehicles that port officials said were taken from the coast guard pier.