POTI, Georgia — Digging into Georgian territory despite promises to withdraw, Russian forces plowed ground Wednesday for what residents feared were two new checkpoints near this strategic Black Sea port.
Tractors turned over fresh earth along a riverbank outside Poti, while Western news reporters said Russian soldiers in central Georgia appeared to be building a sentry post 30 miles from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Russian military officials in Moscow said they planned to construct a "security zone" along the border of South Ossetia, the pro-Russian breakaway province where fighting began on Aug. 7, that will include 18 checkpoints manned by hundreds of soldiers.
A cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia allows Russia to maintain troops along the South Ossetian border. But the activity outside Poti, 170 miles west of Tbilisi, was well outside that zone and appeared to be in defiance of the agreement, which calls for Russia to withdraw its forces to pre-Aug. 7 positions.
In a clearing just outside Poti, where two Russian tanks sat alongside mounds of freshly dug soil, a Russian officer refused to say what his troops were building there. He shooed away a handful of Western reporters by saying he wasn't authorized to answer questions.
Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, told reporters in Moscow that Russian actions were part of a peacekeeping mission to monitor South Ossetia and another pro-Russian separatist region, Abkhazia, 20 miles north of Poti, where there's been limited fighting.
"Russian peacekeepers are fulfilling their functions and we are also preparing to set up additional checkpoints," Nogovitsyn said, according to a transcript.
Under the terms of last week's cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Russia, however, Russia has been able to define who its peacekeepers will be and what "security measures" they may take. In addition, the accord, brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, doesn't refer to preserving the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia.
The conflict, which began when Georgia mounted an offensive in South Ossetia and Russia responded by sending troops into Georgia, has set off a diplomatic confrontation between Russia and Western nations reminiscent of the Cold War.
President Bush continued to back ally Georgia, saying in a speech in Orlando, Fla., that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were part of Georgia and that the U.S. would work to ensure the country's territorial integrity. Bush administration officials have said that the Russian withdrawal needs to proceed faster.
Russia continues to have its way on the ground, however. While Nogovitsyn said that troops were pulling back from South Ossetia and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that all his forces would be withdrawn by Friday, little of that was apparent to Westerners in Georgia.
Georgian soldiers who were captured in a raid on Poti's seaport Tuesday remained in Russian custody in the western town of Senaki, officials in Poti said. The port's director of operations, Vladimir Khokhbaia, who visited the prisoners late Tuesday, said that 22 Georgian soldiers had been captured, two more than was originally reported.
The men — many of whom were bound and blindfolded as they were carted away aboard Russian armored personnel carriers and four U.S.-made Humvees taken from an adjacent coast guard pier — were being held at a Georgian military base that's been taken over by Russian soldiers.
Russian commanders in Senaki told Georgian officials that they'd release the men Wednesday afternoon, Khokhbaia said. By nightfall, however, the men were still being held.
Members of the Russian media were invited to the military base Tuesday to photograph the captives, who were wearing full or partial Georgian military uniforms, Khokhbaia said. Georgian officials who visited the Senaki base were told that Russian troops acted in their capacity as peacekeepers monitoring Georgia's border with Abkhazia.
As for the seized Humvees, which were used in joint U.S.-Georgian military exercises recently and due to be shipped back to the U.S., Nogovitsyn seemed to indicate that Russia would return them.
"We don't need trophy arms," he said. "It's not our style."
(McClatchy special correspondent Julie Sell in Vienna contributed to this article.)
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