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.
On Sunday, Russian aircraft hit the country's major commercial airport outside Tbilisi. Georgian officials said the bombs were intended for fuel supplies but missed them; other analysts suggested the bombs were strays from an attack on a military airfield nearby.
U.S. military aircraft began landing at the commercial airport Sunday, transporting Georgian soldiers that the government ordered home from Iraq. Until the callback, Georgia had the third-largest contingent of troops serving in Iraq, 2,000, after the United States and Britain.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also landed at the airport Sunday evening, as did Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, both as part of a diplomatic push to end the conflict.
France currently holds the presidency of the European Union and is proposing a settlement that includes an immediate end to hostilities, the withdrawal of forces to positions held before the war, the replacement of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia with an international force, and respect for Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia. The region seized de facto independence by force of arms in 1992, but internationally it is still recognized as being part of Georgia.
The Russian government questioned whether Georgian forces had really withdrawn and said that Georgia must sign a written pledge not to use force again. Russia has long resisted any attempt to put an international presence on the ground in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In a formal statement, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev repeated charges of genocide by Georgian troops. "The information we are receiving attests to the fact that crimes of the most serious kind have been committed: people have been murdered, burnt, crushed by tanks, had their throats cut," he said. He added that evidence must be collected to enable "criminal prosecution of their perpetrators."
Vice President Cheney, speaking Sunday with Saakashvili, expressed the United States' "solidarity" with the Georgian people and their elected leaders, Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said in a statement. Cheney praised the decision to withdraw from the conflict zone and said that Russian aggression must not go unanswered.
But such statements appeared to be having little impact on Russia. In a conversation with Georgia's foreign minister, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov replied, "What bombings?" when asked to halt raids on the military factory in the capital, which was struck twice Sunday, in the morning and evening. The conversation was described by a Georgian source who heard the exchange.
The blast from the second strike on the military factory reverberated across the capital, as did the buzz of bombers. The government evacuated the Defense Ministry on Sunday, fearing it could be hit. Lavrov earlier warned the government here that any facility used to support its military operations could be hit.
In Russia, where public opinion is inflamed against Georgia, state television has aired almost no reports that military action and airstrikes on Georgia proper continue.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who cut short a visit to China to meet with military commanders near the Russian border with Georgia this weekend, appears to be driving Russian policy even though the constitution specifies that the country's new president, Medvedev, is the commander in chief.
Putin has never disguised his disdain for Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer who wants Georgia to join the NATO alliance and has staked his presidency on close relations with the United States.
On Sunday, Russian forces pounded Georgian positions in the only section of Abkhazia that the Georgian government controls. Six Russian warships were positioned off the coast of Abkhazia, and Russian troops were deployed into the enclave from the vessels, according to Georgian and U.S. officials.
Russia transported ammunition and other supplies on trains that run on a rail line in Abkhazia that was recently repaired by Russian engineering troops, officials here said. The repairs were described by Russia at the time as a humanitarian action.
Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a colonel-general on Russia's General Staff, told reporters in Moscow that Russia was not involved in offensive operations in Abkhazia: "We are not going to undertake any actions which are going to lead to escalation of the situation in this region."
Russian officials also denied Georgian charges that two of its warships from the Black Sea fleet were blockading the Georgian port of Poti, which was also bombed this weekend. Georgia imports about 85 percent of its wheat, much of it passing through Poti, officials here say.
"This is a campaign to degrade our key civilian infrastructure to the point of making us extremely vulnerable," Lado Gurgenidze, Georgia's prime minister, said in an interview. "The population's tolerance for the anxiety, the uncertainty, are limited and being tested."
Georgian officials also said that Russian bombers have eight times attempted to hit an oil pipeline that crosses Georgia and connects Azerbaijan and Turkey, and is part of Europe's energy chain. "It is a direct attack on the energy security of Europe," Gurgenidze said. "Militarily, it makes absolutely no sense."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Beijing contributed to this report.