Russia Pushes Into 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
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

GORI, Georgia, Aug. 11 -- Russia escalated its war in Georgia again Monday, sending troops and tanks out of friendly separatist enclaves to stage the first major invasion of undisputed Georgian territory. One armored column seized a town and major military base in the west of Georgia, while another menaced the central city of Gori.

The Georgian government abandoned Gori and ordered its troops to fall back to defend against a possible drive on Tbilisi, the capital, 40 miles away. In scenes of chaos, retreating Georgian army trucks shared the highway to the capital with cars and pickups loaded with frightened civilians. Other vehicles, victims of Russian attacks, burned by the roadside.

Georgian and Russian officials confirmed that Russian soldiers took over the western city of Senaki and its base, about 25 miles from Abkhazia, a disputed separatist zone where Russia has been massing troops in recent days. The seizure effectively opened a second front.

There was confusion Monday night over the status of Gori, with some reports saying it was already in Russian hands. The country's main east-west highway, which passes through the city, was cut, Georgian officials said, and rumors swirled among residents of the capital that Russian soldiers would soon be on their streets.

In a television address, President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia of the "preplanned, coldblooded . . . murder of a small country." His government, among the most pro-American in the region, appealed again to the outside world for help.

In Washington, President Bush toughened his rhetoric. "Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," Bush said.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin used sharp language as well, accusing the West of supporting Georgian leaders who he contends committed genocide when their troops swept into the separatist zone of South Ossetia last week. The soldiers wiped out 10 villages, Putin said. "The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing," he declared.

Putin also condemned the United States for airlifting Georgian troops home from Iraq on an emergency basis. Still dressed in desert fatigues, the Georgian soldiers stepped off a U.S. Air Force transport at a Georgian airport Monday.

Moscow's intentions remained a mystery. Russian soldiers, riding tanks and armored personnel carriers, were on the move even as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed to suggest that the military operation was nearing its end, and a Russian general said there was no plan to take territory outside Georgia's two pro-Russian separatist zones. Senior European officials flew into the Georgian capital to try to mediate a cease-fire plan that so far the Russians have ignored.

Over the weekend, Georgian leaders declared a unilateral cease-fire. But with Russian troops operating outside the country's two separatist zones on soil the central government has always controlled, at least some Georgian forces were again in combat mode. Reporters witnessed Georgian troops and six helicopter gunships opening fire near the border of South Ossetia, one of the zones.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s and have formed close relations with Russia. Last week, Georgian forces launched a major offensive that captured the South Ossetian capital in an effort to reestablish central government control; Russian forces drove them out two days later.

The Russian news agency RIA-Novosti, quoting Russian Defense Ministry officials, confirmed the seizure of the Senaki base and said that Russia sent "peacekeepers" there on a "preventative mission." Another Russian official, speaking in Moscow, said the seizure was designed to prevent Georgian forces from using the base to re-group and launch new attacks on South Ossetia. Russia accuses Georgia of continuing to shell South Ossetia.

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