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Bush Sends Rice, Aid To Show Support For Georgia

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Bush today expressed strong support for Georgia, and said that he is dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice there. Also today, an American plane filled with humanitarian supplies landed in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

BLOCK: Still, the Russian military continues to move through parts of Georgia. Today, those forces drove into the city of Gori and occupied a major Georgian port as well as some smaller towns. In a moment, we'll hear from our correspondents in Tbilisi and in Moscow.

First, NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on what President Bush had to say today.

MICHELE KELEMEN: After consulting his aides in the White House Situation Room and talking by phone to Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, President Bush announced that he is having the U.S. military start a humanitarian mission to help Georgia recover.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit.

KELEMEN: Georgian President Saakashvili took the White House announcement to mean that Georgian ports and airports would be under U.S. military control, though Pentagon officials quickly denied that. Saakashvili has been appealing for more help from his friends in Washington. Earlier in the day, in an interview with CNN, he said the Bush administration's initial statements in the crisis had been far too weak.

President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): They were too soft. You know, Russians don't understand that kind of soft language. And certainly, America needs to act because America - everything America has achieved for the Cold War is being undermined and destroyed now.

KELEMEN: It has been France, not the U.S., in the lead on the diplomatic front. France, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, is now working on plans to send in international monitors. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to fly overnight to France and then travel on to Tbilisi to show support for President Saakashvili.

Though the U.S. has little leverage with Russia, administration officials warn that Russia's aspirations to join the World Trade Organization and remain a player in the group of eight leading industrialized nations could be at stake. Secretary Rice said any further Russian military action will hurt Moscow's standing.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): That will only serve to deepen the isolation into which Russia is moving. It will only serve to deepen the very strong, growing sense that Russia is not behaving like the kind of international partner that it has said that it wants to be.

KELEMEN: This line of argument doesn't seem to concern Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. However, he accused the United States today of playing a dangerous game in the Caucasus by backing President Saakashvili.

Mr. SERGEY LAVROV (Foreign Minister, Russia): (Speaking foreign language)

KELEMEN: We understand that this current Georgian leadership is a special project of the United States, Lavrov said. But he added, one day, the United States will have to choose between defending it prestige over, as he put it, a virtual project, or a real partnership on issues that require joint action.

His comments angered Secretary Rice, who said that Russia works with the U.S. on issues like Iran and North Korea, not as a favor to the Bush administration but because it's in Russia's interest. And she said America has made its choice to support Georgia's democracy. Rice said, it's time to move on from the Cold War.

Sec. RICE: This is not 1968, in the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed.

KELEMEN: The secretary said Russia seriously overreached; that its actions show this was about far more than just South Ossetia, the pro-Moscow region that Georgia tried to retake before being forced back by Russia's far more powerful military.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.