Large-Scale Fighting Erupts In South Ossetia
August 08, 2008
Georgia says its soldiers have seized the "greater part" of South Ossetia after heavy fighting erupted overnight in the breakaway region. The "total mobilization" of Georgia's military forces was ordered, and Russian troops have entered South Ossetia, raising fears of a full-blown military conflict.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said a Russian armored column with 150 vehicles has now entered South Ossetian territory. He also said Georgian forces earlier shot down two Russian warplanes.
"I would like to let the whole world know that there is a large-scale military aggression going on against Georgia," Saakashvili said. "During the last minutes and hours, Georgia has been bombed from the Russian Federation's side. Populated areas, peaceful spaces, have been bombed -- and this is nothing less than international aggression in its classical sense."
Georgian forces had pounded the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, in a large-scale operation to regain control of the Moscow-backed province. The separatist leadership says at least 15 civilians were killed in the fighting, while Russia is claiming that at least 10 of its peacekeepers have been killed. Georgia has reported eight deaths, without specifying if they were military or civilian.
Georgia's Saakashvili said most of South Ossetia had been "liberated." He accused Russia of conducting air attacks on Georgian territory and ordered a full-scale mobilization of military reservists.
Georgian authorities confirmed that Russian tanks had entered South Ossetia and were advancing toward Tskhinvali. They also accused Russian aircraft of attacking a military base near the Georgian capital.
According to Tbilisi, Georgian forces downed four Russian military aircraft and fought two convoys of mercenaries that reportedly entered the province from Russia.
Georgian National Security Council Secretary Kakha Lomaia said the fighting had claimed lives among Georgian civilians.
"Responding to the unilateral cease-fire declared by President Saakashvili and his offer for peace talks and negotiations, the separatists launched artillery fire against the villages of Tamarasheni and Prisi," Lomaia said. "According to our data, there are casualties amongst the peaceful population."
A commander of the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Igor Konashenkov, said that at least 10 of his troops had been killed and 30 wounded as a result of Georgia shelling.
Saakashvili had announced a unilateral truce on August 7. But just two hours later, Tbilisi sent troops into South Ossetia, claiming separatists were shelling Georgian-populated villages.
Tbilisi said the operation would continue until a "durable peace" was reached.
South Ossetian officials were quick to condemn the offensive and pour scorn on the cease-fire announcement by Saakashvili.
Speaking to journalists in Moscow, South Ossetia's representative in the Russian capital, Dmitry Medoyev, dismissed the declared truce as a "smokescreen."
"This was a planned action. These speeches about peace and friendship and not restarting military action were simply a smokescreen after which followed what we see today," Medoyev said. "We hope that the Georgian side will reconsider and return to the negotiating table, although a lot of blood has been shed."
Vladimir Pletnyov, a Russian television journalist who traveled to Tskhinvali late on August 7, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that at 4 a.m. on August 7, "something awful happened."
"Grenade launchers were fired on the city center. Everything was in flames, the center was burning. We gathered the whole film crew and left. At 6 a.m., we arrived at a village called Java. But within 40 minutes, Su-25 jets flew over the village. They circled twice over it, and the third time they started bombing us. One of the bombs exploded 25 meters from our vehicle."
Pletnyov said South Ossetian civilians were fleeing in large numbers toward the Russian border. The International Committee of the Red Cross has called for a humanitarian corridor to be opened in South Ossetia that would allow ambulances to evacuate the wounded.
Russia, which has backed Georgia's two separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since they broke away from central Georgian government control in the 1990s, vowed a tough response.
Ties between Moscow and Tbilisi have soured over Moscow's political and financial support for the two provinces. Georgia, in turn, has angered Moscow by pushing for NATO membership.
In Beijing to attend the opening of the Olympic Games, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lambasted the Georgian leadership's "very aggressive actions" that he said killed several Russian peacekeepers.
"On the day of the opening of the Olympics, on the eve of the Olympics, the Georgian leadership undertook highly aggressive actions toward South Ossetia," Putin said.
"They, in fact, began military action with heavy arms fire, artillery, and tanks. There are casualties, dead, and wounded. And there are casualties among the Russian peacekeepers. It is very sad. It is very alarming. And, of course, it will lead to a response."
President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will not allow the deaths of Russian citizens to go unpunished. "The guilty parties will receive the punishment they deserve," he said.
The escalation follows a failed Russian attempt to pass a resolution on the clashes at an emergency session of the UN Security Council overnight in New York.
Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, strongly condemned Georgia's military operation.
"As a result of all of these actions, Tbilisi, the Georgian leadership, has completely lost its credibility as a responsible party in the negotiation process and in international relations, according to the principles of the United Nations," Churkin said.
But the 15-member Security Council failed to agree on a statement drafted by Russia that called on Georgia and South Ossetia to immediately lay down weapons.
Churkin did not hide his disappointment, saying the vote underscored the "absence of political will" within the Security Council.
Both the European Commission and NATO have called for both sides to end the fighting, with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer voicing serious concern over the situation and called on all sides to end the armed clashes and return to the negotiating table.
The overnight violence erupted just hours after hopes for bilateral talks tentatively set for August 7 in Tskhinvali were dashed by the South Ossetian authorities.
Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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