Politics & Government

Georgians, Russians battle for province

They fled in a terrified stream from the capital of the breakaway province of South Ossetia and said they saw bodies everywhere – on the streets, in cars, amid the rubble of buildings.

“It was impossible to count them,” said Lyudmilia Ostayeva, 50.

Despite an international flurry of diplomacy, no side showed any sign of backing off the fight Friday after Georgia launched a military offensive to retake the separatist region and Russia deployed columns of tanks in response.

Hundreds of civilians were reported dead as the violence threatened to ignite a broader war between Georgia and Russia, and witnesses said the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali was devastated.

“We will remember this tragedy for the rest of our lives,” 28-year-old Sarmat Laliyev said after arriving in Dzhava, a town near the border with Russia. “They are killing civilians, women and children, with heavy artillery and rockets.”

It was the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992.

The fighting broke out as much of the world's attention was focused on the start of the Olympic Games and many leaders, including Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Bush, were in Beijing.

The timing suggested Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili may have been counting on surprise to fulfill his longtime pledge to wrest back control of South Ossetia – a key to his hold on power. The rebels seek to unite with North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.

Saakashvili agreed the timing was not coincidental but accused Russia of being the aggressor. “Most decision makers have gone for the holidays,” he told CNN. “Brilliant moment to attack a small country.”

Diplomats issued a flurry of statements calling on both sides to halt the fighting and called for another emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, its second since early Friday morning seeking to prevent an all-out war.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Russia to halt aircraft and missile attacks and withdraw combat forces from Georgian territory. Rice said in a statement the United States wants Russia to respect Georgian sovereignty and agree to international mediation.

The leader of South Ossetia's rebel government, Eduard Kokoity, said about 1,400 people were killed in the onslaught, the Interfax news agency reported. The toll could not be independently confirmed.

As night fell, there were conflicting claims as to who held the battlefield advantage.

Saakashvili said “Georgian military forces completely control all the territory of South Ossetia” except for a northern section adjacent to Russia. But Russian news agencies cited a Russian military official as saying heavy fighting was under way on the outskirts of the regional capital.

It was unclear what might persuade either side to stop shooting. Both claim the battle started after the other side violated a cease-fire that had been declared just hours earlier after a week of sporadic clashes.

The United States was sending in its top Caucasus envoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, to try to end the bloodshed.

Russia, which has granted citizenship to most of the region's residents, appeared to lay much of the responsibility for ending the fighting on Washington.

In a telephone conversation with Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Georgia must be convinced to withdraw its forces, according to a ministry statement.

Georgia, which borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership – a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its influence in the region.

Saakashvili long has pledged to restore Tbilisi's rule over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia. Both regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and have built up ties with Moscow.

Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq, making it the third-largest contributor to coalition forces after the U.S. and Britain. But Saakashvili told CNN the troops would be called home today in the face of the South Ossetia fighting.

Early Saturday, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said the Vaziani military base on the outskirts of the Georgian capital was bombed by warplanes during the night and that bombs fell in the area of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. He also said two other Georgian military bases were hit and that warplanes bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizable oil shipment facility.

Utiashvili said there apparently were significant casualties and damage but that further details would not be known until the morning.

Georgia's Foreign Ministry accused Russian aircraft of bombing two military air bases inside Georgia, inflicting some casualties and destroying several military aircraft. Rustavi 2 television said four people were killed and five wounded at the Marneuli air base.

Twelve Russian troops were killed and 30 wounded in the fighting, said Russian Ground Forces spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov.

Russia's Defense Ministry said it was sending in reinforcements for its troops in the province, and Russian state television and Georgian officials reported a convoy of tanks had crossed the border. The convoy was expected to reach the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, by evening, Channel One television said.

“We are facing Russian aggression,” said Georgia's Security Council chief Kakha Lomaya. “They have sent in their troops and weapons and they are bombing our towns.”

Putin warned in the early stages of the conflict that the Georgian attack would draw retaliation and the Defense Ministry pledged to protect South Ossetians, most of whom have Russian citizenship.

Chairing a session of his Security Council in the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also vowed that Moscow will protect Russian citizens.

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