WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President George W. Bush, under fire for Washington's handling of the crisis in Georgia, was to lay out a sweeping US response to the conflict on Wednesday amid a global drive to punish Russia.
Hours after speaking to Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili, Bush was to speak at 11:15 a.m. (1515 GMT) flanked by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, US officials said.
"He's going to talk about, obviously, a comprehensive approach to the situation in Georgia. I fully expect there will be some mention of humanitarian assistance," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
Bush -- who spent the morning in the "Situation Room," his high-tech national security nerve center in the mansion's basement -- was to make his remarks in the Rose Garden outside his Oval Office.
It was not immediately clear what Bush would say, though Washington has been mulling diplomatic retaliation for Russia's operations in Georgia and has called an extraordinary meeting of NATO alliance foreign ministers next week.
The United States has announced it was cancelling joint military exercises with Russia, in its first concrete response to the armed conflict in Georgia, as it considered a range of options.
Earlier, Saakashvili sharply criticized the initial US response to the military crisis, saying early statements from top US officials on Moscow's push in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia were "too soft."
"Well, frankly, some of the first statements from Washington were perceived by the Russians almost as a green light for doing this because they were too soft. Russians don't understand that kind of soft language," Saakashvili said.
The Georgian president, who said he had recently spoken to Bush, called on the United States and its European allies to deploy a peacekeeping force to the region after Russia and Georgia agreed a fragile French-brokered truce.
"Then clearly send peacekeepers on the ground, secure a lifeline, at least for the capital at this stage, and push very hard to overcome the situation. Who else can stand up for liberty in the world?" he said in English.
The White House scrapped its morning press briefing and Rice, initially set to deliver the formal US response at a press conference, cancelled that event as Bush took the lead.
"The president will make a statement on Georgia later today," said spokeswoman Dana Perino, who declined to give details from Bush's talks with Saakashvili. An aide later said the remarks would be at 11:15 am.
On Monday, days after the crisis escalated, Bush delivered a stern warning to Russia to reverse course in Georgia and called Moscow's operations "unacceptable in the 21st century."
Washington later said it would scrap the planned military exercise because "in the wake of this conflict, there is no way that we can proceed with this joint exercise at this time," said a senior US defense official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
NATO nations on Tuesday condemned Russia's "excessive, disproportionate use of force," at an ambassadorial-level meeting in Brussels.
The alliance's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters then that the alliance -- conceived to contain the Soviet Union -- had not backed away from its position that Georgia should one day become a member.
"Georgia is a respected partner and friend and one day Georgia will join NATO," he said.
Some other member states have also stressed that it can no longer be "business as usual" with Russia, with one possibility being to end its partner status.
US NATO ambassador Kurt Volker said many of the 26 NATO nations said the Georgian conflict had opened a serious rift with Russia.
"There can't be business as usual when an open conflict is going on in a territory that is a partner of NATO with Russia involved," he added.
Russia failed in a bid to arrange a Russia-NATO council meeting on Tuesday while the NATO ambassador did meet with the Georgian foreign minister in Brussels.
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