Georgia: Russian troops accused of selling loot
Last Updated: 9:36PM BST 24 Aug 2008
Georgian civilians leaving Gali, a predominantly Georgian town within the breakaway province of Abkhazia, spoke with wonder of a bazaar bristling with everything from US army boots to plasma televisions and even sophisticated radar equipment. The men peddling the goods were all Russian soldiers, they said.
Russian soldiers have a reputation for entrepreneurship in the midst of battle. Over 14 years of intermittent conflict in Chechnya, many officers made considerable fortunes from selling arms to Chechen rebels.
The market spirit seemed to strike again as Russian when troops began a pull out from undisputed Georgian territory it appears they took more than just souvenirs with them as they departed.
Shortly after 150 military lorries withdrew from western Georgia into Abkhazia, where Moscow has long backed the province's rebels, residents say market stalls began to spring up in Gali, a garrison town close to the Georgian frontier.
"Not a single Georgian should buy anything from there," the officer-in-charge said. "Remember that, while things might be cheap, they were stolen from your brothers and sisters."
A Russian officer commanding the border post denied the existence of the market.
"I have been here non-stop for several days and I would have seen them bringing over all these things," he said. "Russian soldiers do not loot and those that do we hand them straight to the prosecutor's office to face charges."
The Daily Telegraph was unable to confirm existence of the market after it was denied permission to enter Abkhazia.
At the army camp of Senaki, built by the US and perhaps the most advanced in the country, storage facilities by a runway had been stripped bare by the retreating Russians.
Office equipment from the barracks, where several windows had been blown out, had also been ransacked.
At the naval base of Poti, another herd of cows roamed through rubble and debris left by Russian bombs. Russian troops occupied the port for several days, spending most of their time blowing up warships and coastguard vessels. The twisted and partially submerged wrecks lay scattered across the Black Sea harbour, where a film of oil coated the surface of the water.
Damaged furniture, partially documents and stationery strewn across the offices of the harbourmaster and the coastguard headquarters bore testament to frenzied looting. Computers had been prized from their sockets, patches of dirt on kitchen walls showed where fridges once stood and office doors had large holes in them.
"One has to wonder if the Russians would even know how to use it," Tengiz Babunashvili, the commander of the port's radar facility, remarked bitterly."
Other peacekeepers were entrenched in positions near Senaki and Zugdidi, to the north, prompting accusations from the West that Russia has not truly honoured the terms of a ceasefire which called for a full military withdrawal from Georgia.
For ordinary Georgians, there was some good news as an American warship - ostensibly on a humanitarian mission - docked in the port of Batumi, south of Poti.
Georgians, some waving US flags, crowded the harbour to welcome American soldiers brought ashore by motor launch.
Its mission may have been to bring in aid supplies, but the Tomahawk cruise missiles that the ship also carried were clearly designed to send Russia a message and reassure ordinary Georgians that the United States is on their side.
That message will be reinforced in the coming days, with four more American ships expected to dock off Georgia's Black Sea coast.