Russian Air, Ground Forces Strike Georgia

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 9, 2008

MOSCOW, Aug. 8 -- Russia launched airstrikes Friday deep inside Georgia and mobilized columns of tanks after Georgian forces embarked on a major offensive to reassert control over South Ossetia, a separatist province. Political leaders on both sides said that war had begun. The United States, an ally of Georgia, and other governments appealed for a cease-fire.

Georgian army units quickly seized Tskhinvali, capital of the mountainous province, Georgian officials said. But large numbers of Russian tanks appeared to be moving against them there. Russian television showed what was described as a Georgian armored vehicle burning on the city's streets. Local officials reported large numbers of civilians killed. Russian officials said that more than 10 of their troops had died.

Georgia, a former Soviet republic, became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. South Ossetia then fought a war to break away from Georgia and has had de facto independence since 1992. The province is dominated by an overwhelmingly ethnic Ossetian population, many of whom have taken Russian citizenship. South Ossetia has received support from Russia, which is suspicious of Georgia's close links with the United States and its bid to join the NATO alliance.

Georgia's U.S.-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has made recovery of South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, a top priority. "A full-scale aggression has been launched against Georgia," Saakashvili declared in a television statement. He announced a full military mobilization, with reservists being called into action. "Only thus shall we save our country," he said. Georgian officials also said they would recall troops in Iraq to bolster forces against the Russians.

In an interview with CNN, Saakashvili called for unspecified U.S. support for Georgia, comparing the situation to Soviet crackdowns in places such as Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. "This is not about a tiny separatist area inside Georgia. . . . This is not about Georgia anymore. It is about America, its values," he said.

President Bush discussed the crisis with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Beijing, where both were attending the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics, administration officials said. Putin told Bush that "war has started today in South Ossetia," according to Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

The Bush administration offered strongly worded backing for Georgia but avoided any mention of possible military assistance. In Beijing, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said "the United States supports Georgia's territorial integrity, and we call for an immediate cease-fire." The administration was urging "all parties -- Georgians, South Ossetians and Russians -- to de-escalate the tension and avoid conflict," Perino said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who spoke several times by telephone with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, was more specific. "We call on Russia to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgia's territorial integrity, and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil," she said in a statement.

The presidential candidates, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), called separately for an end to the violence and for U.N. Security Council action. McCain demanded that Russia "withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory"; Obama said Georgian territorial integrity "must be respected."

The administration and the European Union agreed to send mediators, an effort in which France appeared to take the lead. France, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, issued a communique saying that envoys would be sent to Georgia from the E.U., the United States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

About 130 U.S. military and civilian personnel are currently located in Georgia, where they are training Georgian troops for deployment to Iraq as part of the multinational force there. U.S. military officials in Baghdad said they had gotten no official word about statements from Tblisi that half of Georgia's 2,000-troop contingent was being called home.

In New York, Georgia convened an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to try to secure a cessation of hostilities and to press Russia to withdraw its military forces. The 15-nation council struggled unsuccessfully in a closed-door session to fashion a statement calling for an end to the fighting, but the United States and Russia remained deadlocked over wording.

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