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.
The Russian news agency Interfax later reported that Russian troops had pulled out of Senaki after "eliminating" the potential to shell South Ossetia.
Senaki is several hours' drive from South Ossetia and had been a concern for separatists in Abkhazia, not South Ossetia. Completed in 2006, the base was built to meet standards of the NATO alliance, which Georgia aspires to join.
The French and Finnish foreign ministers visited Tbilisi on Monday as part of a diplomatic push to end the fighting. They visited Gori as well, where they inspected a bombed apartment building. Bernard Kouchner, the French minister, said he wanted to get a "strong picture" of events on the ground. Finland's Alexander Stubb was present in his country's capacity as rotating head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Saakashvili joined them in Gori. Toward the end of the visit, the sound of an airplane overhead caused panic among his security detail. Shouting "air, air" in Georgian, his bodyguards pulled him to the ground and covered him with flak jackets for protection. They later bundled him into a sport-utility vehicle that sped off.
Earlier Monday, Saakashvili signed a peace proposal offered by Kouchner, which calls for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of forces to positions held before the start of the recent hostilities, an international peacekeeping presence in South Ossetia, and the respect of Georgia's territorial integrity.
It is unclear whether the plan will be acceptable in Moscow. Russians have said that Georgia must sign an agreement not to use force against the two separatist enclaves, which under international law are part of Georgia. Other Russian officials have suggested that Georgian troops near the enclaves would have to surrender their weapons to the Russians.
Russian officials continued Monday to defend their country's actions. Grigory Karasin, Russia's deputy foreign minister, said Monday that "we want television screens in the West to be showing not only Russian tanks and saying Russia is at war in South Ossetia and with Georgia, but also to be showing the suffering of the Ossetian people, the murdered elderly people and children, the destroyed towns of South Ossetia, and Tskhinvali. This would be an objective way of presenting the material."
The Russian claims of atrocities have not been independently verified. Some of them appear to echo hearsay accounts provided on Russian television by South Ossetians who fled a Georgian military assault on the capital, Tskhinvali.
Some of the few reporters who have visited Tskhinvali described a devastated city with large numbers of dead. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in a CNN interview Monday that 2,000 people had died in South Ossetia during the recent Georgian offensive.
Western countries, particularly members of the European Union, are far from united about the conflict. East European and Baltic countries have been harshly critical of Russia's action.
Major powers such as Germany, France and Britain have called for an end to the fighting, but they have avoided directly condemning Russia. Italy, whose prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a friend of Putin's, is sympathetic to Russia's position.
"We cannot create an anti-Russia coalition in Europe, and on this point we are close to Putin's position," said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, speaking to the newspaper La Stampa. "This war has pushed Georgia further away . . . from Europe."