POTI, Georgia _ Russian forces took more than two dozen Georgian soldiers prisoner Tuesday in a raid on the country's main commercial seaport, a striking display of force that belied the first faint signs that Russia was reducing its troop levels elsewhere in Georgia.
About 100 heavily armed Russian soldiers aboard six armored personnel carriers stormed the Black Sea port of Poti in western Georgia and overwhelmed the troops who were standing guard there, port officials said. Five hours later the Russians drove out of Poti past helpless Georgian police officers and anxious onlookers, some of whom gasped at the sight of blindfolded Georgian soldiers being carried away as prisoners.
The Russian troops also left with at least four U.S.-made Hummer military vehicles that port officials said were taken from an adjacent coast guard pier.
The raid paralyzed one of Georgia’s key commercial hubs for several hours and signaled that Russia, despite President Dmitry Medvedev’s pledge to withdraw forces, continues to operate freely inside Georgia and appears intent on squeezing its tiny neighbor economically as well.
But for the first time since Russia sent troops into Georgia a week and a half ago following a Georgian military operation in the pro-Moscow separatist province of South Ossetia, there were signs that Russia may be thinning its forces that had reached to within 25 miles of the country’s capital, Tbilisi.
Russian troops continued to occupy positions stretching from South Ossetia to Igoeti, about 25 miles from Tbilisi, but the positions appeared less frequent and manned by fewer soldiers than the day before. Because Russian armored fighting vehicles and trucks were moving toward and away from Tbilisi, however, it was hard to gauge exactly what the troop levels were.
Outside Gori, about 40 miles from Tbilisi, Russian soldiers still blocked the main road, letting only aid convoys and officials pass. Inside the city, the Russians quietly occupied the streets, sitting next to troop transport vehicles.
Russian forces continued to occupy a military base at Senaki, in western Georgia, a day after cratering a runway with airstrikes. And hours after the raid on the seaport, Russian trucks and armored personnel carriers continued to ply the main east-west highway between Poti and Senaki, which remained sparsely populated by civilian cars.
The port attack was the latest against a key Georgian transportation artery. Russian forces control large chunks of the main east-west highway, which runs through Gori, and are accused of destroying a bridge on the main railway line.
The strikes have crippled the privately run commercial port, located 170 miles west of Tbilisi. Poti 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, port officials said.
On Aug. 8, Russian planes bombed the port’s main container handling area, leaving three workers dead and three others seriously injured, port officials said. The attack knocked the port offline for nearly three days.
On Tuesday, as Russian forces filed out of Poti in a convoy of tanks, trucks and newly acquired Humvees, a McClatchy reporter counted more than two dozen blindfolded men in full or partial Georgian military uniforms being carted away by the Russian soldiers.
Residents gathered by the roadside to gape at the scene. 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 the Russians _ could only stand in the center of the road, directing traffic as the vehicles 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."
The Georgians' capture came as the two countries engaged in a brief exchange of prisoners of war in Igoeti. The Russian Itar-Tass news agency said that Georgia received 15 POWs and Russia received five, which were transferred to a medical facility in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, for treatment.
But Georgian frustration with the Russian presence is only growing. Outside Igoeti, several dozen protestors marched toward a Russian checkpoint, holding Georgian flags and banners reading, "Stop Occupation" and "No to USSR." They came within a few yards of the Russian soldiers, shouting "Leave! Leave! Leave!"
The soldiers smirked. A call went out for reinforcements, and an armored fighting vehicle rumbled from behind a berm and on to the road.Russian Lt. Musa Aushev watched the demonstration coming toward him and shook his head.
"I don’t think they’ll try to cross this line," he said, gesturing to the row of truck tires stacked up to form the checkpoint. "We really don’t want to shoot peaceful civilians."
The protestors stopped just in front of Aushev and his men, to the chuckles of the Russian troops. "These occupiers are laughing at us," one man yelled from the crowd. A few minutes later, the crowd, banners sagging, turned back around. The Russians weren't going anywhere.