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.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Russia was compelled to intervene to protect Russian citizens from attacks by Georgian forces, and that those responsible for violence would be held accountable. He said that Georgia's actions call into question "the viability of Georgia as a state, their viability as a responsible member of the world community."
The two sides have long skirmished along the unofficial border between Georgia and South Ossetia, where Russia has maintained a force of soldiers who are officially peacekeepers, but who Georgians see as allies of the separatists. Georgian officials said their offensive was triggered early Friday after separatists continued to shell Georgian villages following the announcement of a unilateral cease-fire by Saakashvili on Thursday.
Television images showed Georgian rockets firing into the night sky. Reporters in Tskhinvali said many houses were engulfed in flames, a hospital was destroyed and a university was on fire. One Russian peacekeeper told Interfax, the Russian news agency, that the city was "practically destroyed."
More than 10 Russian peacekeepers have been killed and about 30 have been wounded in Tskhinvali, Col. Igor Konashenkov, aide to the commander in chief of the Russian Ground Forces, told Interfax.
Estimates of civilian casualties from the separatist government ran as high as 1,400. South Ossetian civilians were flooding to the border with Russia, according to news reports. Russian news media said that paramilitary fighters were also streaming across the border from Russia, including from North Ossetia, a Russian republic that shares ethnic ties with the South Ossetians.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, facing his first major crisis since taking office in May, called an emergency meeting of the national security council. "We will not tolerate the death of our citizens," he said at the meeting. "Those guilty will receive due punishment." Russian state television showed a column of Russian tanks and troops on the move and said that the force was already inside South Ossetia.
Georgian officials said that Russian aircraft were striking strategic Georgian positions far beyond South Ossetia. By their account, attacks occurred at the Black Sea port of Poti, Marneuli air base, another air base in Bolnisi and the Vaziani military installation about 15 miles from the capital. The foreign ministry said several Georgian military aircraft were destroyed at Marneuli.
Russia denied that its aircraft were involved in hostilities, as well as a claim by Saakashvili that Georgian forces had shot down two Russian jet fighters.
In Tbilisi, a large radio and TV tower was blacked out early Saturday morning for fear of attack. Tbilisi's airport and the state chancellery, as well as two government ministries, were evacuated as a precaution, according to Temur Yakobashvili, the minister for reintegration.
In an interview, Yakobashvili said: "Russia has to stop harassing its neighbors and attacking its neighbors. . . . And if not, the next will be Ukraine, next the Baltic states, and then we will be back in the Soviet Union."
Staff writers William Branigin and Karen DeYoung in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Joyce Barrett in Tbilisi contributed to this report.