Georgia Retreats, Pleads for Truce; U.S. Condemns Russian Onslaught

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
Monday, August 11, 2008

OUTSIDE TSKHINVALI, Georgia, Aug. 10 -- The Georgian army, suffering massive casualties in the face of overwhelming Russian firepower, retreated from the breakaway region of South Ossetia on Sunday. Georgian leaders' recent expressions of defiance turned increasingly into pleas for a cease-fire and Western support in the face of a military debacle.

Russia ignored calls for a truce and continued to bomb targets deep in Georgia, with little apparent opposition, drawing new condemnation from the United States and other Western countries. President Bush spoke of his "grave concern about the disproportionate response," and the White House warned of serious setbacks in relations with Russia if the onslaught against a close U.S. ally did not end.

Russian airstrikes Sunday evening hit the international airport and a military factory in the capital, Tbilisi, as well as Georgian-held positions in Abkhazia, another breakaway region on the Black Sea. Russian warships were reported to be blockading a Georgian Black Sea port and to have sunk a Georgian gunboat.

It remained unclear Sunday how far Russian troops intended to advance. Georgian villages just outside South Ossetia were shelled Sunday, clouds of smoke and burning fields visible on the horizon as artillery barrages echoed loudly. Georgians fled the villages, bedding loaded into the backs of their cars. Residents of one village outside South Ossetia, Kekhvi, said advancing Russian troops had entered their homes.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told CNN in an interview that the people of his country "are not crazy" and "have no interest whatsoever in pursuing hostilities."

Western reporters entering South Ossetia with Russian troops, meanwhile, saw Georgian soldiers' bodies lying uncollected in the streets of Tskhinvali, the region's capital, and heavy damage to the city. Georgian troops launched an offensive to take control of the breakaway region early Friday. Civilians told the reporters that Georgian tanks had fired indiscriminately during the two-day seizure of the city, killing and wounding many city residents.

Georgia's retreat is translating into popular anger among Georgians against the United States and the European Union, and a widespread sentiment that this small, pro-Western country has been abandoned to face Russia alone. Georgian officials said that the West's credibility is on the line and that failure to stop the continuing attacks could embolden Russia to threaten other countries in the region.

"Russia has applied unprecedented military power . . . and it is of such amplitude that it would have scared much bigger states," Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, said in an interview. "This war has changed the whole system of values of pro-Western, liberal-minded people. I don't want to be a bad prophet, but why would Russia stop here? There are other countries where Russia thinks it has a claim to territory."

According to Lomaia, at least 7,000 Russian troops, backed by combat aircraft and heavy weaponry, attacked Tskhinvali, bloodying Georgia's forces in and around the city. Georgian officials acknowledged that their troops were routed and quickly retreated early Sunday.

"Very many military servicemen were killed, probably in the hundreds," Lomaia said, speaking of Georgian casualties in Sunday night's offensive. Hundreds of wounded were taken to hospitals in Tbilisi, according to doctors at one hospital.

Two journalists working for the Russian edition of Newsweek were killed near Tskhinvali after approaching the city from the Georgian side.

"There were more and more of them," said one retreating Georgian soldier near Tskhinvali, speaking of the attacking Russians. Another soldier said his unit received orders to retreat about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Villagers in the area said they could hear the rumble of the fleeing Georgian forces through the night.

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