Russian soldiers digging in deep into Georgia

Georgia Materials 18 August 2008 19:49 (UTC +04:00)

The Russian soldiers that have advanced most deeply into Georgian territory are energetically digging in, despite the announcement of initial troop withdrawals from the Kremlin on Monday, dpa reported.

The men and officers of an advanced guard company of the 17th Motorized Rifle Division have been busy in the 48 hours since they arrived in the vicinity of a bridge crossing Georgia's Lekhura River just 30 kilometres from Tbilisi.

Where once Russian privates had to stand in the middle of the road to slow vehicles with hand signals, now barriers of old tyres commandeered from the nearby village of Igoeti force traffic to a halt.

Georgian military traffic was not allowed, the checkpoint commander said. The road opened to civilian vehicle traffic at 12.30 pm Monday, almost precisely the time named by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as his deadline for starting to observe ceasefire terms in the region.

Covering the Lekhura bridge a pair of well camouflaged T-72 tanks were set in defilade, with only their turrets visible, as is standard tactics with tanks.

An armoured personnel carrier (APC) was a few metres behind to protect the tanks, and nearby enterprising crewmen had taken possession of an old metal shack and turned it into a communications point.

Higher up the hill, an automatic grenade launcher and its crew enjoyed a commanding view.

Were the Georgian army to attempt to push towards the Russian positions - unlikely given the Georgian military's current disorganization and morale - whatever came up the road would be shelled, before it bumped into the tanks.

Russian soldiers, some stripped to the waist, had set up tarpaulins and cots to avoid the region's powerful sun, but the presence of a journalist near their position brought the tank and APC to life in seconds.

Higher up the hill, and near a still-functional Georgian mobile phone communications mast, more Russian soldiers - some blue-eyed northerners and others high-cheeked Kazakhs - were taking picks and shovels to the rock, sand and scrub, hacking out another gun position.

The Russians had needed less than two days to dig themselves and their vehicles into the landscape and continued on Monday afternoon, despite the presence of the foreign correspondent.

Ironically, the Russian soldiers were taking advantage of one of the proudest civil engineering achievements of their opponent.

Georgian President Saakashvili, with great fanfare and at no little public expense, has in recent years built a modern road system connecting all of Georgia's major cities.

Saakashvili's high-standard roads, and more precisely the concrete drainage tunnels running periodically under the roadways, are now being used by the Russians as impromptu bomb shelters. Near one pipe entrance lay a pile of anti-tank rockets.

Lorries raced from position to position, delivering water and the midday meal.

The Monday lunch menu on the Lekhura sector of the Russian Army's Georgia Front featured rice cooked with vegetables and tinned beef, supplemented by cookies and a green soda pop not particularly favoured by the troops.

Cabbage soup was available daily, but fresh bread supplies had fallen off, they said.

No soldiers complained of hunger, although some accepted water, saying the chlorine tablets they had been issued made the Lekhura water safe, but funny-tasting.

The Russians said they had peaches and apples in plentiful supply, courtesy of Georgian villagers. The locals were not particularly friendly but would provide fresh well water if asked, soldiers said.

Maize fields and plum orchards in the vicinity were untouched, despite the ready-to-eat cobs and fruit.

Military trash was minimal. However, empty containers of Russian pre-packaged meals littered the roadside at a few locations.

Russian soldiers interviewed on Monday were aware their president had ordered the start of a withdrawal of forces from Georgia.

But they said their orders were to be prepared to defend the vicinity for the indefinite future. The digging in would continue, they said.