TWO Belfast men on holiday in war-torn Georgia are vowing to stay put – unless they see Russian troops marching towards their hotel.
David McDowell and his friend Gavin Adams travelled to the country to see the birthplace of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, but have now found themselves in the middle of a brutal war between the former Soviet republic and Russia over the breakaway region, South Ossetia.
Mr McDowell said the two men were not unduly alarmed by the fighting, just 40 miles away from where they were staying in the capital Tbilisi.
There were also reports yesterday that Russian warplanes had bombed an area near Tbilisi airport.
Despite Foreign Office advice for Britons to get out of the country, the politics teacher joked: "We're Ulstermen and we've paid for this holiday and we're going to enjoy it.
"The drink and food is cheap and the people are wonderful and this is a very interesting time to be here – why would we want to go home early?
"Our friends have been sending us texts saying, 'The Russians are coming!', but I don't think so – they'll stop when they get what they want and the Georgians know they are on their own, so it will settle down again."
Mr McDowell, head of politics at Fettes College in Edinburgh, spoke from the Georgian capital yesterday as heavily armed police guarded public buildings and military aircraft flew overhead.
He said: "I suppose you could say we have what some might call 'an unhealthy interest' in the former Soviet republics and that's why we came here.
"We're about 40 miles away from the fighting and really I don't expect the Russians to come marching up the road.
"I think they'll do what they set out to do, which is pound all resistance in the area into submission."
Mr McDowell said they had seen little sign of Georgia being a country at war.
"The city is a lot quieter than it was when we arrived a week or so ago and in the evenings a lot of the pubs are empty and restaurants closed but if you arrived now you wouldn't notice too much.
"This is unusual as the Georgians like to eat and dance – but now people are much more gloomy after the absolutely ruthless response from the Russians.
"One result of all this could be a backlash against the Georgian Prime Minister Mikhail Saakashvili.
"I think this could possibly be the calm before the storm but it's more likely that the Russians will halt at the South Ossetia frontier when they've driven the Georgians out, no matter what UN, EU or Nato resolutions for ceasefires are made."
Mr McDowell said he and his friend felt quite safe: "We had booked a taxi to go to Gori, Stalin's birthplace, but have been told that's too dangerous as the Russians have been bombarding it.
"We went out in the country this morning to see some monasteries, though.
"We noticed some military activity and police with rifles, which they don't normally carry, guarding bridges and roads but apart from that it was quiet."
Mr McDowell said he and Mr Adams had no plans to cut their trip short because of the conflict, despite advice from the Foreign Office that UK nationals should leave.
"We've been told that if our flights are cancelled we should make our way overland through the mountains to Armenia which I think would be a great adventure."