Georgian Troops Move to Retake Rebel Province
The Associated Press
Tbilisi, Georgia - Russian troops moved into South Ossetia hours after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned Georgia that its attack on the breakaway region would draw retaliation, Russian television reported Friday.
On Friday near South Ossetia's capital, Georgian troops fired rockets at troops from the separatist province. (Photo: Reuters)
The Russian move comes after Georgian troops launched a major military offensive earlier Friday to regain control over South Ossetia and the president accused Russia, which has close ties to the separatists, of bombing Georgian territory.
The fighting in South Ossetia has raised fears of an all-out war that could draw in Russia, which has peacekeepers in the region. Putin said an unspecified number of the peacekeepers have been wounded.
Russia's Channel 1 television showed a convoy of Russian tanks which it said entered South Ossetia. The tanks were reportedly expected to reach the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, in a few hours.
There was no immediate comment from Georgian officials.
Putin had earlier said the Georgian attack will draw retaliation and the Defense Ministry pledged to protect South Ossetians, most of whom have Russian citizenship.
An Associated Press reporter saw tanks and other heavy weapons concentrating on the Russian side of the border with South Ossetia and villagers were fleeing into Russia.
"I saw them (the Georgians) shelling my village," said Maria, who gave only her first name. She looked shocked and was reluctant to speak. She said she and other villagers spent the night in a field and then fled toward the Russian border as the fighting escalated.
NATO has called for an immediate end to fighting. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he is seriously concerned about the fighting and that the alliance is closely following the situation.
Separatist officials in South Ossetia said 15 civilians had been killed in fighting overnight. Georgian officials said seven civilians were wounded in bombing raids by Russia.
South Ossetia officials said Georgia attacked with aircraft, armor and heavy artillery. Georgian troops fired missiles at the regional capital, Tskhinvali, an official said, and many buildings were on fire. The Russian news agency Interfax said a hospital was hit by Georgian shelling.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russian aircraft bombed several Georgian villages and other civilian facilities.
"A full-scale aggression has been launched against Georgia," Saakashvili said in a televised statement.
He also announced a full military mobilization with reservists being called into action.
Seven civilians were wounded when three Russian Su-24 jet bombers flew into Georgia and bombed the town of Gori and the villages of Kareli and Variani, Deputy Interior Minister Eka Sguladze said at a briefing.
She said four Russian jets later bombed Gori, the hometown of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but that raid didn't cause any casualties.
Saakashvili urged Russia to immediately stop bombing Georgian territory. "Georgia will not yield its territory or renounce its freedom," he said.
A senior Russian diplomat in charge of the South Ossetian conflict, Yuri Popov, dismissed the Georgian claims of Russian bombings as "disinformation," the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
Moscow Denounces 'Dirty Adventure'
Russia's Defense Ministry denounced the Georgian attack as a "dirty adventure." "Blood shed in South Ossetia will weigh on their conscience," the ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site.
"We will protect our peacekeepers and Russian citizens," it said without elaboration.
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. The country 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 built up ties with Moscow.
Most residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have Russian passports. An open war could prompt Russian to send in more forces under the claim of protecting its citizens.
Putin Warns of 'Retaliatory Actions'
Putin, speaking in televised remarks Friday during his trip to the opening of the Beijing Olympics, said Georgia's military action causes "grave concern and it will certainly lead to retaliatory actions."
Saakashvili said government troops have seized the outskirts of Tskhinvali and are fighting for control of the center. Georgian forces also have seized several villages around the capital.
Gen. Mamuka Kurashvili, a Georgian military officer in charge of operations in the region, said on Rustavi 2 television that Georgian forces were moving to "establish constitutional order in the region."
The leader of Russia's province of North Ossetia rushed to Tskhinvali. "We are jointly organizing defenses here," Teimuraz Mamsurov said in the city, according to the Interfax news agency.
Mamsurov said hundreds of volunteers from North Ossetia were streaming across the border into South Ossetia, Interfax said. It also quoted the separatist leader of Abkhazia as saying that some 1,000 volunteers from his region were heading to South Ossetia.
Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili said Georgian officials were doing everything they could to avoid casualties and the destruction of property.
But Boris Chochiyev, a minister in the South Ossetian government, said that Georgian troops shelled the center of Tskhinvali with truck-launched missiles. He asked the Russian government to defend South Ossetians.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov called on Tbilisi to commit itself to peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Yakobashvili said Friday that Georgia was ready to negotiate, but claimed the South Ossetian officials were dragging their feet in starting talks.
At the request of Russia, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session in New York but failed to reach consensus early Friday on a Russian-drafted statement.
The council concluded it was at a stalemate after the United States Britain and some other members backed the Georgians in rejecting a phrase in the three-sentence draft statement that would have required both sides "to renounce the use of force," council diplomats said.
"We think that this is a very serious error of judgment and political blunder," Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said of the council members' disagreement. "I hope that the Georgian side will reconsider its reckless actions in the area of the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict."
The Georgian attack came just hours after Saakashvili announced a unilateral cease-fire in a television broadcast late Thursday in which he also urged South Ossetian separatist leaders to enter talks on resolving the conflict.
Georgian officials later blamed South Ossetian separatists for thwarting the cease-fire by shelling Georgian villages in the area.
Worst Fighting Since 1992
The fighting was the worst outburst of hostilities in the region since it won a de-facto independence in a war that ended in 1992.
Russia has soldiers in South Ossetia as peacekeeping forces, but Georgia alleges they back the separatists. Russia also was criticized by the West as provoking tensions by sending warplanes over South Ossetia last month.
Most of South Ossetia, which is roughly 1.5 times the size of Luxembourg, has been under the control of an internationally unrecognized separatist government since 1992. Georgian forces hold several swaths of it.
Relations between Georgia and Russia worsened notably this year as Georgia pushed to join NATO and Russia dispatched additional peacekeeper forces to Abkhazia.