News & Current Affairs

August 9, 2008

Russian jets attack Georgian town

Russian jets attack Georgian town

Russian jets have carried out strikes on military targets in the central Georgian town of Gori, close to the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Most of the targets seem to have been military bases, but Georgian officials said a number of civilians had been killed in residential buildings.

Russia said it had “liberated” the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Earlier, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said his country was seeking “to force the Georgian side to peace”.

BBC map

The comments came after Russian commanders announced they were sending more troops into South Ossetia to support peacekeeping operations.

The Russian defence ministry confirmed two of its jets had been shot down over Georgia, although it did not say where.

In a live televised address, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said he would ask parliament to approve the introduction of martial law.

After days of exchanging heavy fire with the Russian-backed separatists, Georgian forces launched a surprise attack on Thursday night to regain control of the region, which has had de facto independence since a war in 1992.

In response, Moscow sent armoured units across the border. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said about 1,500 people had been killed so far, including 15 of his country’s soldiers.

President Saakashvili said 30 Georgians had been killed in two days and that Russia was at war with his country.

‘Military invasion’

Fighting raged around the breakaway region’s capital, Tskhinvali, overnight and into Saturday morning, although not at the same intensity as on Friday, Russian media reported.

Video still from Russia's NTV channel shows South Ossetian separatists walking near a burning Georgian tanks in Tskhinvali  (9 August 2008)

Russian said Tskhinvali had been liberated from the Georgian military

Later, the Russian Army’s Ground Forces commander, Gen Vladimir Boldyrev, told Russian media that his troops had retaken the city from Georgian forces.

“Tactical groups have fully liberated Tskhinvali from the Georgian military and have started pushing Georgian units beyond the zone of peacekeepers’ responsibility,” he said, after paratroopers were airlifted into the city.

Georgia said Russia had also launched air strikes on targets inside its territory, in what it described as “a full-scale military invasion”.

Later, Russian aircraft bombed mostly military targets in Gori, where Georgian troops have been massing at three bases to support their forces engaged in South Ossetia.

Our peacekeepers and the units attached to them are currently carrying out an operation to force the Georgian side to [agree to] peace
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

The c’s Richard Galpin in Gori heard loud explosions and saw large plumes of smoke rising into the sky; soldiers and civilians were seen running through the streets.

One missile hit a military base, from which most of the soldiers appeared to have managed to escape beforehand, he says.

The Georgian military said residential buildings had also been struck, leaving a number of civilians dead. Our correspondent says injured civilians were being pulled from the buildings, which were on fire.

The Georgian foreign ministry said the Black Sea port of Poti, which is the site of a major oil shipment facility, had also been “devastated” by a Russian aerial bombardment.

Hospitals ‘overflowing’

President Medvedev said Russia’s military aim was to force the Georgians to stop fighting. He was speaking at a meeting on Saturday morning in the Kremlin with Defence Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and the head of the Russian Armed Forces.

“Our peacekeepers and the units attached to them are currently carrying out an operation to force the Georgian side to [agree to] peace,” he said.

“They also bear the responsibility for protecting the population.”

1991-92 S Ossetia fights war to break away from newly independent Georgia; Russia enforces truce
2004 Mikhail Saakashvili elected Georgian president, promising to recover lost territories
2006 S Ossetians vote for independence in unofficial referendum
April 2008 Russia steps up ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia
July 2008 Russia admits flying jets over S Ossetia; Russia and Georgia accuse each other of military build-up
7 August 2008 After escalating Georgian-Ossetian clashes, sides agree to ceasefire
8 August 2008 Heavy fighting erupts overnight, Georgian forces close in on Tskhinvali

At the same time, a spokesman for Russian ground forces said reinforcements, including elite paratroopers, were being deployed.

On Friday, the Russian government said it had to act to defend South Ossetia’s civilians, most of whom have been given Russian citizenship.

It also voiced anger over the reported fatalities of Russian servicemen in the breakaway province, vowing not to allow their deaths to go unpunished.

Tskhinvali, where inhabitants are said to be sheltering in basements without electricity or phone lines, is reported to be devastated.

International Red Cross (ICRC) spokeswoman Anna Nelson said the ICRC had received reports that hospitals in the city were “overflowing” with casualties.

The BBC’s James Rodgers in Moscow says diplomatic initiatives to end the fighting have so far proved fruitless.

On Friday evening, the UN Security Council failed to agree on the wording of a statement calling for a ceasefire.

Russia holds a permanent place on the Council, and has the power of veto over any official statements that it regards as unfair or inaccurate.

Permanent members Britain, the US and France, are pinpointing what they say is Russia’s aggression as the key factor in the slide towards war, while Moscow insists Georgia is to blame.

In other developments:

  • US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Russia to pull its troops out of Georgia and respect its territorial integrity
  • Georgia’s president said his country was withdrawing its contingent of 2,000 troops from Iraq to help deal with the crisis
  • The European security organisation, the OSCE, warned that the fighting in South Ossetia could escalate into a full-scale war
  • The US and the EU were reported to be sending a joint delegation to the region to seek a ceasefire and Nato said it was seriously concerned.

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