Thousands of angry Georgians took the streets of the small but strategically important port city of Poti to protest the continued presence of a Russian checkpoint and patrols on the city’s outskirts.

Just south of Abkhazia along the coast, the city of Poti had been a key port for the Soviet Black Sea Fleet since WW2, and the Russian Navy leased its use from Georgia until September of 1998, when an agreement between Georgia and Russia went into effect. The port is expected to take on increasing economic importance in the future, as a $200 million investment agreement between the Georgian government and a United Arab Emirates investment fund and a tax-free zone sought to turn Poti into a Black Sea Dubai.

The United States says the Russian presence is a violation of the cease-fire accord, and while Russian General Anatoly Nogovitsyn conceded that the city was indeed outside of the Abkhaz security buffer zone, he insisted troops would remain in the city for the time being, citing the operation of several American military vehicles within the city.

The vehicles, five Humvees emblazoned with the insignia of the United States Marine Corps, had been used in a previous US-Georgia joint military exercise and were said to be in the port awaiting shipment back to the United States. General Nogovitsyn’s statement said the Humvees had been used by Georgians, saying his troops would not “sit behind the fence (and) watch as they drive around in Hummers”.

The United States has demanded the return of the Humvees, though Russia appears at this point unwilling to do so. Agence France-Presse cites a Russian newspaper as claiming the Humvees contained sophisticated communications equipment and had been flown to Moscow for further examination.

compiled by Jason Ditz

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