By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 10, 2008
GORI, Georgia, Aug. 9 -- Russian strategic bombers and jet fighter planes pounded targets in many parts of Georgia on Saturday, hitting apartment buildings and economic installations, as well as military targets in an escalating war that is killing more and more civilians and confounding international efforts to secure a cease-fire.
Russia continued to pour troops and tanks into South Ossetia, the breakaway region of Georgia that triggered the conflict, to confront Georgian forces that are attempting to reclaim the region. Both sides claimed control of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, where sporadic gunfire and shelling continued Saturday.
"Nobody really controls anything," said a senior U.S. official, noting the continuing fighting.
Civilians on both sides of the conflict fled homes, sometimes leaving behind devastation and bodies buried in rubble. Russia said that 2,000 people had been killed in South Ossetia and that more than 30,000 refugees had crossed into Russia.
Georgian officials said 130 people were killed on its side of the unofficial border with South Ossetia, including at least 30 civilians who died Saturday when bombs from Russian planes struck two apartment buildings in this city.
None of the casualty figures could be independently confirmed.
Rhetoric on both sides escalated Saturday, with each side saying it wants peace and a cease-fire but with neither showing signs of backing down. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Georgia of "genocide." Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking to a small group of foreign reporters, vowed that Georgia will "resist until the end."
The Russians "want to get rid of us," he said. "They want to make regime change. And they want to get rid of any democratic movement in this part of their neighborhood. That's it, period."
President Bush and other Western leaders repeated calls for a cease-fire, their comments increasingly leavened with criticism of Russia's intensifying operation. Georgian hopes of pledges of help were disappointed.
"The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia," said Bush, who was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympics but spoke to Saakashvili by phone Saturday afternoon. "They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis."
Alexander Stubb, the Finnish foreign minister and chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, noted that Russia, which has had peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia for years, could no longer be considered a mediator. "Russia is at the moment a party in this conflict," Stubb said. Speaking in Helsinki on Saturday, he expressed little hope for a quick solution. Asked about the chances of a cease-fire and negotiations, he said: "On a scale of 1 to 10, we are at about 2."
The French government, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, urged Russia to accept Georgia's call for a cease-fire. The French presidency "underlines that the pursuit of military action would affect its relationship with Russia," a statement said. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is due to visit the region Sunday.
The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, failed for the second day in a row to agree on a common response to the crisis.
Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, said the fighting would not stop until Georgia withdrew its forces from South Ossetia and signed an agreement pledging not to use force in the province again. The United States countered that Russia's military intervention into Georgian territory is threatening to destabilize the region. The United States urged all parties to agree to a cease-fire. "The first thing that has to happen is that the violence has to stop and Russian forces have to be withdrawn," said Alejandro D. Wolff, the U.S. deputy permanent representative.
Despite those efforts, combat continued for a second day Saturday and appeared to widen to other fronts. Separatists in Abkhazia, another section of Georgia seeking independence or integration into Russia, began shelling Georgian positions in the upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia controlled by the government in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.
The United Nations announced it will withdraw about 15 military observers from Abkhazia, citing fear that the U.N. blue helmets could get caught in crossfire between Russian-backed Abkhaz forces and Georgian troops.
Saakashvili said in the interview that Russia was staging seaborne forces in the Black Sea near Abkhazia and planned to land troops and launch attacks on Georgian forces in the upper Kodori Gorge.
A senior U.S. official said that the Bush administration had received confirmation that Russia was moving elements of its Black Sea fleet to the area, which he described as another example of a disproportionate response by Russia.
"Why that's a legitimate use of military assets is beyond me," the official said.
Saakashvili said Russian planes struck the Black Sea port of Poti, attempted to hit but missed a pipeline carrying Caspian Sea oil to Turkey, and bombed railway stations, among other nonmilitary targets. Doctors working in Gori said that Russian planes had struck two military field hospitals.
Saakashvili said Georgia had shot down 10 Russian SU-27 fighter jets (Russia has confirmed losing two). He accused Russia of attempting to sow panic among the population by targeting apartment buildings in Gori and homes in nearby villages.
"Russia is behaving like a rogue state," he said.
"This is unprecedented," said Georgian political analyst Giorgi Margvelashvili. "Not since the destruction of the Soviet Union have they done things like that."
Georgia has mobilized its reserves and is calling home 2,000 troops serving in Iraq for the fight against Russia.
"There is panic in Tbilisi," said a senior U.S. official, briefing reporters in Washington. He said Russia is using TU-22 supersonic strategic bombers that can carry as much as 54,000 pounds of bombs and cruise missiles. He also said that Russia has launched ballistic missiles against targets in Georgia.
Russian officials were adamant Saturday that they were striking only targets associated with what they described as Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia, an area patrolled since the early 1990s by Russian peacekeepers.
Putin, returning from the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing, flew to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia in Russia, where most of the South Ossetian refugees from the fighting have fled.
"Russia's actions in South Ossetia are totally legitimate," Putin said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of encouraging Georgia to carry out "ethnic cleansing" in South Ossetia.
Russian news agencies reported Sunday that Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held a pre-dawn meeting outside Moscow, after which Putin announced that the government was ready to earmark up to $425 million for aid to South Ossetia. Medvedev said he was ordering the military prosecutor to document crimes against civilians in South Ossetia, the Associated Press reported.
The desire of the leadership in both Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO has infuriated the Kremlin, which regards any further expansion of the Western military alliance as a threat to its security.
"Georgia's aspiration to join NATO . . . is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures," Putin said in Vladikavkaz.
Medvedev told Bush in a telephone call that there will be no talks with Tbilisi until Georgian troops withdraw from the conflict zone.
Ossetians are an ethnic group separate from the country's dominant Georgians. Both are Christian, but each has its own language, culture and sense of history.
The parties disagree over who began the escalation. Saakashvili said he ordered his forces in only after Russian troops crossed into South Ossetia in large numbers. Russia says Georgia escalated the standoff by crossing the unrecognized frontier in an effort to regain control of the disputed territory.
"Whatever part of Georgia is used for this aggression is not safe," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung in Washington, Tara Bahrampour in Tbilisi and Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.