A U.S. military ship carrying humanitarian aid docked at the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi on Wednesday, avoiding the port of Poti, which is still controlled by Russian forces.
The move came amid escalating tensions between Russia and Georgia's Western allies. Batumi, where the Coast Guard cutter Dallas docked, is well south of the zone of fighting in this month's war between Russia and Georgia.
The United States and European nations have assailed Russia's recognition of two Georgian territories as separate nations Tuesday, and Moscow has also criticized the U.S. for bringing humanitarian aid into Georgia on military ships.
The U.S. embassy changed its version of events several times in the last 24 hours. At first, it announced Tuesday that its aid ship would dock Wednesday at Poti. Then early Wednesday, the embassy said that plans had changed, and the ship would dock at Batumi.
Later in the day, the U.S. Embassy retracted its earlier statement that an aid ship would dock in Poti. The spokesperson would not allow their name to be used.
Poti's port reportedly suffered heavy damage from the Russian military. In addition, Russian troops have established checkpoints on the northern approach to the city and a U.S. ship docking there could have been seen as a direct challenge.
"The decision of where to send aid was made at the highest level of the Pentagon and the only decision was to send it to Batumi," a U.S. Embassy spokesman said on condition of not being further identified.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday recognized the regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Western leaders assailed Russia for violating Georgia's territorial sovereignty.
Although Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of an European Union-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general countered Tuesday that using warships to deliver aid was "devilish."
"The heightened activity of NATO ships in the Black Sea perplexes us," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in Moscow.
Many of the Russian forces that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the separatist region of South Ossetia have pulled back, but hundreds at least are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones" inside Georgia proper.
In a move that angered Russia, the U.S. sent the missile destroyer USS McFaul to Batumi to deliver 34 tons of humanitarian aid on Sunday.The McFaul left Batumi on Tuesday but planned to remain in the Black Sea area, said Commander Scott Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy.
In Moscow, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff lashed out at the U.S. naval operation.
"We are worried" about the way aid is delivered on warships, Nogovitsyn said. "This is devilish."
"This aid could be bought at any flea market," he added.
While he did not link it with the U.S. ships, Nogovitsyn said a unit of Russian naval ships was off Sukhumi - the capital of another separatist Georgian region, Abkhazia, on the Black Sea north of Poti. He said the ships were observing the pullout of Russian troops from Georgia.
The United States and other Western countries have given substantial military aid to Georgia, angering Russia, which regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence. Russia also has complained bitterly about aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.