WASHINGTON - With a $20 million, 24-nation aid effort under way for victims of the fighting in Georgia, the USNS Comfort, Baltimore's familiar white-hulled hospital ship, remains idle at its Canton pier, though on standby for possible deployment to the region.
The Pentagon sent a military team into war-ravaged Georgia yesterday to determine what supplies are needed and the most effective ways to deliver them. Two Air Force C-17 cargo planes have already carried basic loads of shelter, food and clothing.
The Comfort, with its 12 operating rooms and fully staffed 1,000-bed hospital, could provide badly needed medical services. The ship is also capable of producing large quantities of fresh water.
But Lt. Cmdr. Steven Pigman, an administrative officer on board the Comfort, said it would take five days to get under way. Most of that time is required to load food and medical stores and assemble its medical and support staff of 1,000 to 1,200 people.
At the ship's cruising speed of 17.5 knots, it would take just over two weeks to travel the 5,840 nautical miles from Baltimore to Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti.
There are other options.
The Pentagon is prepared to airlift mobile field hospitals to Georgia, which would be quicker than sending the Comfort, and the units could be deployed in rural parts of the country if needed, officials said. The Defense Department also has access to mobile water purification units that could be airlifted as well.
International aid officials have described a confusing situation in Georgia, with units of Russian troops roaming outside the contested enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and militias in unmarked uniforms on the streets. Russian troops invaded Aug. 7 after an escalating confrontation over the two disputed regions.
The United Nations refugee agency said one of its assessment teams was attacked yesterday by a paramilitary group, which hijacked their vehicle at gunpoint. The vehicle was later recovered and the U.N. officials were unhurt.
The Pentagon's operations in Georgia could put U.S. military personnel directly in contact with Russian forces. The teams will be authorized to act in self-defense but will not be "confrontational," officials said.
"I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters.
Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon has had "very good cooperation and dialogue" with Russians as it coordinated its incoming C-17 flights and arranged for an assessment team to work in Georgia.
The U.N., which is supervising the international relief effort, estimated that 115,000 people have fled the fighting over the past week. Aid agency officials said many have taken refuge in kindergartens and other public buildings where food, water, medicine and toilets are in short supply.
"People fled with nothing but the shirts on their backs," said Chris Skopec, an official with the International Medical Corps, a private agency, who was en route to Georgia yesterday. He expressed a need for blankets, bedding, soap, toothpaste and cooking utensils.
Significant international aid is already pouring into Georgia. The U.N.'s World Food Program has fed 25,000 people, the International Committee of the Red Cross has delivered 100 tons of supplies by air and the Norwegian Red Cross is setting up a 20-bed field hospital.
Aid is also coming from Estonia, Ukraine, Israel, Turkey, Sweden, Romania and elsewhere.
Catholic Relief Services, headquartered in Baltimore, has five staff members in Georgia and is supporting a feeding center in Tbilisi and working with other displaced families.
Sonja Khush, director of emergency response for Save the Children, a private aid agency, said that along with relief supplies, she anticipates teaching people how to watch out for unexploded ordnance when they return home.
Save the Children and other agencies generally encourage people to donate money rather than send supplies.
"But the best thing people can do is lobby their governments to put on pressure for an immediate cease-fire and the opening of corridors for delivery of humanitarian supplies," said Skopec.