News & Current Affairs

August 19, 2008

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Russian soldiers near Gori, Georgia, on 18 August 2008

Moscow insists that its troops have begun pulling back, as promised

Nato foreign ministers are gathering in Brussels for an emergency summit to discuss how the alliance should respond to Russia’s military action in Georgia.

On the eve of the meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the West must deprive Russia of any strategic victory from its assault on Georgia.

But major differences remain among Nato members as to how far they should go in seeking to punish Russia, analysts say.

Tbilisi says Russia is not pulling out, as pledged, but Moscow denies it.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to wrest back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia’s heartland.

A ceasefire was signed at the weekend, with Moscow pledging to begin pulling back its troops on Monday, but correspondents say there has so far been little sign of any large-scale force withdrawal.

We hope the decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era
Dmitry Rogozin
Russia’s ambassador to Nato

Officials in Tbilisi said there was no evidence that Russian troops were leaving Georgian territory, but the Russian defence ministry said the redeployment had begun and would be complete within days.

As Nato’s 26 foreign ministers gather in Brussels, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus says there is disagreement among the alliance as to how to respond, so the focus will be on where members can agree.

It is thought that in one camp, Britain, Canada, the US and most Eastern European member states will seek a tough stance on Russia, but most of Western Europe, led by France and Germany, is expected to be more cautious of harming ties with Moscow.

Flying to the Nato meeting, Ms Rice told reporters: “We have to deny Russian strategic objectives, which are clearly to undermine Georgia’s democracy, to use its military capability to damage and in some cases destroy Georgian infrastructure and to try and weaken the Georgian state.”

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Our correspondent says the summit, called at the Americans’ request, looks set to offer strong support to the government in Tbilisi, stressing Nato’s commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty.

A Nato spokeswoman told AFP news agency: “I think you can expect a strong message to Russia.”

The alliance is also expected to reiterate its backing for the agreement it reached in Romania back in April that Georgia will one day be offered membership of Nato, without setting any dates.

Nato is also expected to offer more humanitarian aid and proposals on how to rebuild Georgian infrastructure damaged in the conflict.

Our correspondent says Nato’s immediate diplomatic goals are a full Russian withdrawal, an enhanced observer force and, ultimately, a more neutral peacekeeping arrangement.

He says high-level contacts between Nato and Russia could be suspended if Russians do not pull back to the positions their peacekeepers occupied before the hostilities.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The sight of GWB [US President George Bush] complaining about Russia’s “disproportionate use of force” is hilarious

Max, London

Washington has denied claims from Moscow that it is out to wreck the Nato-Russia Council – a consultative panel set up in 2002 to improve ties between the former Cold War enemies.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, said on Monday he hoped the “decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era”, reported the Associated Press news agency.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili struck a conciliatory tone on Monday as he called for talks with Russia, saying: “Let’s resolve problems through civilized methods.”

Map of region
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August 16, 2008

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russian troops

Moscow’s troops continue to operate deep inside the Caucasus republic

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a ceasefire agreement with Georgia after receiving it in Moscow.

The deal calls for all military activity to stop and for troops from both sides to pull back into pre-conflict positions.

The deal was signed on Friday by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Russian forces remain deep in Georgian territory, and correspondents say many obstacles remain in the way of full implementation of the peace deal.

At stake is the future of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US-backed Georgia has vowed it will not accept any loss of its territory, but Russia insists that following the recent violence, residents are unlikely to want to live in the same state as Georgians.

The crisis, which began nine days ago, saw Georgian forces launch a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, only to be decisively repelled by Russian forces.

Russian ‘advances’

On the ground in Georgia, Russian forces had moved forward overnight.

Russian forces still control Gori, which lies some 15km (10 miles) from the border with South Ossetia.

Several tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in Kaspi, west of Gori and some 35km north-east of the capital Tbilisi – an advance of some 15km on their previous position. Lorries of soldiers were seen heading towards the town.

Meanwhile, Russian troops were seen patrolling in Zestafoni, some 100km west of Gori along a major highway.

The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries… They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities
Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian president

Georgian officials also said Russian forces remained in the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, the site of a major oil shipment facility, and a major Russian military contingent is further inland, at Senaki.

The crisis began on 7 August, when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, which has had de facto independence since the end of a civil war in 1992.

The move followed days of exchanges of heavy fire with the Russian-backed separatist militias. In response to the Georgian assault, Moscow sent armoured units across the border into South Ossetia to intervene.

Obstacles ahead

Scores of people have been killed by the fighting and tens of thousands displaced.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

The EU-brokered ceasefire agreement which both sides have now signed includes a pledge to pull all troops back to their pre-conflict positions.

It also contains a plan to begin international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Tbilisi on Friday, has demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory.

But Russia argues its forces are there to ensure civilians face no threat from Georgian troops.

Mr Saakashvili has accused the Russians of committing war crimes.

A displaced Georgian woman rests just outside the town of Gori (15/08/08)

The UN puts the number of those displaced in the conflict at 118,000

“The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries,” he said. “They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities.”

He criticized the West for not granting Georgia membership of Nato, saying it could have prevented the fighting.

Diplomats have said that the UN Security Council is expected to vote this weekend on a draft resolution formalising the ceasefire agreement.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet the Russian permanent representative in New York, possibly on Saturday, because he has so far been unable to contact the Russian president, officials have said.

‘Watching with alarm’

President Bush is set to hold a video conference with some of his most senior staff, including Ms Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, to discuss the crisis in Georgia.

George Bush (file)
President Bush said Russia had to act to end the crisis in Georgia

On Friday, Mr Bush said Russia’s actions in Georgia were “completely unacceptable”.

“The world has watched with alarm as Russia invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatened a democratic government elected by its people,” he said.

He called upon Russia to end the crisis or risk its credibility on the global stage.

Mr Bush said he would send his secretary of state to Brussels next week to discuss how to deal with Russia with Nato foreign ministers and EU officials.

But the president did not respond to comments from Russia’s deputy chief of staff, who said Moscow would be justified in launching a nuclear attack if Poland went through with its agreement to base US interceptor missiles on its territory as part of Washington’s controversial defence shield.

Map of region


Are you in Georgia or Russia? Have you been affected by the conflict? You can send us your experiences

August 14, 2008

Lebanon-Syria to demarcate border

Lebanon-Syria to demarcate border

Syrian and Lebanese presidents and first ladies

Suleiman’s visit assures progress in badly strained bilateral ties since 2005

Lebanon and Syria have agreed to resume work on formally demarcating their common border as part of efforts to repair years of strained relations.

However, Syria said the work on borders would not cover one of the most contentious areas, the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, until Israel withdrew.

Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman is currently in Damascus for talks with his counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

They also confirmed the setting up of diplomatic ties for the first time.

If the Syrians will go ahead and demarcate the border between Lebanon and Syria, and respect its sovereignty in other ways, then this will have proved to be a very good step
Condoleezza Rice
US Secretary of State

The leaders also agreed to make further efforts to discover what happened to hundreds of Lebanese people who disappeared during the civil war.

Some Lebanese groups accuse Syria of holding them as detainees.

Bi-lateral treaties, which some Lebanese believe are too favourable to Syria, will also be reviewed.

Assad to Beirut

The outcome of the negotiations was announced at news conference by the two foreign ministers, Syria’s Walid Muallem and Lebanon’s Fawzi Salukh.

Other items agreed between the two sides included tackling corruption, economic co-operation and commitment to Arab initiatives in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In addition, President Assad accepted an invitation to visit Lebanon at a date to be decided soon, the foreign ministers said.

Lebanon and Syria have had badly strained relations since the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005. Many Lebanese blame Syria for the killing, but it has repeatedly and adamantly denied involvement.

Syria kept a large military and intelligence presence in Lebanon after the civil war ended in 1990, but it was forced to withdraw after the Hariri assassination because of massive public pressure in Lebanon with strong international support.

Settling relations with Syria is a top priority for the new government in Lebanon.

The US cautiously welcomed developments saying the opening of embassies was “one of the steps that has long been required”.

“Now, if the Syrians will go ahead and demarcate the border between Lebanon and Syria, and respect its sovereignty in other ways, then this will have proved to be a very good step,” US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said.

Rice says Russia faces isolation

Rice says Russia faces isolation

A  US C-17 transport plane sits at Tbilisi Airport on 13 August

The first US relief plane was unloaded in Tbilisi overnight

he US secretary of state has warned Russia that it risks isolation abroad if does not observe a ceasefire with Georgia and withdraw its troops.

“We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia,” she said.

Condoleezza Rice is to visit France for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who currently chairs the EU, before visiting Georgia itself on Friday.

The US has begun delivering aid by air to the ex-Soviet republic.

Washington is showing unwavering support for Georgia in its conflict with Russia.

Russian forces briefly moved out of the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia on Wednesday to destroy military hardware at an abandoned Georgian military base in the nearby town of Gori.

Thousands of Russian troops remain in South Ossetia since they drove out a Georgian force which tried to regain control of the de facto independent province in a surprise attack one week ago.

They are also deployed in force in Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway province, where separatists ejected Georgia’s remaining troops this week.

‘Isolation’ for Russia

Condoleezza Rice has warned Russia it risks further isolation.

Dispatching Ms Rice to Europe, President George W Bush called on Moscow to withdraw its forces from Georgian territory.

“The [US] stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia, insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected,” he said at the White House on Wednesday, flanked by the secretary of state and Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

[There is a] very strong, growing sense that Russia is not behaving like the kind of international partner that it has said that it wants to be
Condoleezza Rice
US secretary of state

Ms Rice said Russia faced international “isolation” if it refused to respect the truce.

“We expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country,” she said.

There was, she said, a “very strong, growing sense that Russia is not behaving like the kind of international partner that it has said that it wants to be”.

Ms Rice is to discuss with Mr Sarkozy the five-point peace plan he personally brokered with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on lightning visits to Russia and Georgia on Tuesday.

FIVE-POINT PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops return to pre-conflict positions

A US military transport plane landed in Tbilisi airport on Wednesday evening, delivering what the US said was medical supplies, bedding and other items for internally displaced people.

The US special envoy to the region, Matthew Bryza, said the consignment was the first of many that would be arriving by sea and air.

The provision of US aid to Georgia follows a promise by President Bush that the US military would play a role in delivering emergency supplies to Georgia.

Kim Ghattas, the BBC’s correspondent at the US state department, says that while Washington has been warning Russia of the consequences of its military action in Georgia, so far little has happened apart from the cancellation of a joint military exercise.

But the view from Washington is that Russia has more to lose from a deterioration in ties with the West.

US officials insist that Moscow does care if concrete moves are taken to isolate it on the international scene, our correspondent says.

‘Civilised country’

The Georgian government says that 175 people, mainly civilians, were killed during the conflict with Russia and South Ossetian separatist forces.

A Russian officer records the decomposing body of a Georgian soldier on a street in Tskhinvali on 13 August

This Russian officer was recording a body found in Tskhinvali

Russia, which says that 74 of its troops were killed, reports that more than 2,000 people died in South Ossetia, the vast majority civilians allegedly killed in the Georgian attack.

While none of the casualty figures have been verified independently, the UN refugee agency estimates that some 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, both from South Ossetia and Georgia proper.

Russia says its forces dismantled and destroyed military hardware and ammunition at an undefended Georgian base near the town of Gori on Wednesday.

Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said attacks by Russian forces on Georgian military targets outside South Ossetia were legal and necessary.

He said Russia had to destroy Georgian artillery, and bomb military airfields, in order to protect its peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

Speaking to the BBC, he also said he was surprised at the international condemnation of Russia’s response to the crisis:

“Any civilized country would act same way. I may remind you [that on] September 11 [2001], the reaction was similar. American citizens were killed. You know the reaction.”

Meanwhile, Georgians fleeing Gori reported widespread shooting and looting by South Ossetian separatists.

Map of region


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Russia begins Georgia handover

Russia begins Georgia handover

Russian soldier near Gori, 13 August 2008

Russia insists its troops remain in Georgia for security purposes only

Russian troops have begun handing over control of the area around the town of Gori to Georgian security forces.

But a Russian general in the area said Moscow’s troops would remain nearby for several days to remove weaponry and help restore law and order in Gori.

Overnight the US secretary of state urged Moscow to meet its own pledge to pull troops out of Georgia altogether.

Georgia attacked the rebel region of South Ossetia from Gori a week ago and the town has remained a key flash point.

Russian troops occupied the town after they pushed Georgian forces out of South Ossetia, sparking a mass retreat from the city by Georgian troops and civilians.

Gori has also come under air attack, with reports of Russian planes bombing the town after Moscow declared an end to its military operation on Tuesday.

And Russia’s continued deployment of troops in Gori raised concerns that the Kremlin would not make a quick withdrawal from Georgian territory, despite agreeing to a European peace plan.

Safety ‘improved’

Moscow insists that the purpose of its continuing presence in Georgia proper is to hand over security to the Georgian police and to remove abandoned weapons and ammunition.

In Gori, I saw lorries full of bodies being delivered to the hostpial every day. So many people have died, why is the government lying?

Local residents reported feeling safe and secure on Wednesday night, our correspondent says, with Russian troops clearly in charge of the town.

The Russian general co-ordinating the return of Georgian police and security forces to Gori urged residents – many of whom left town as the Georgian army retreated on Monday – to return to their homes and re-open their shops, our correspondent adds.

Russian troops were allowing armed Georgian police back into the town, and would not leave until order is restored, Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said.

US steadfast

The Georgian government says that 175 people, mainly civilians, were killed during the conflict with Russia and South Ossetian separatist forces.

Russia, which says that 74 of its troops were killed, reports that more than 2,000 people died in South Ossetia, the vast majority civilians allegedly killed in the Georgian attack.

While none of the casualty figures have been verified independently, the UN refugee agency estimates that some 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, both from South Ossetia and Georgia proper.

Both sides have accused each other of committing atrocities during the conflict, although little conclusive evidence has been found.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said on Wednesday night Russia faced international “isolation” if it refused to respect the truce, brokered by French and current EU President Nicolas Sarkozy.

She spoke hours after Russian tanks were seen moving out of Gori on the main road to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Amid widespread concern the armored column eventually turned off the main road and troops began work to destroy or disable Georgian army bases.

“We expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country,” Ms Rice said later in Washington, before leaving on a diplomatic mission to France and Georgia.

There was, she said, a “very strong, growing sense that Russia is not behaving like the kind of international partner that it has said that it wants to be”.

And the US special envoy to the region, Matthew Bryza, told the BBC that the outbreak of violence in the Caucasus strengthened Georgia’s case to join the Nato alliance.

“Russia, a country with 30 times the population [of Georgia] decided to roll into its much smaller neighbour and tried to roll over it. It failed to roll over Georgia, but it would never have even thought of doing this if Georgia were already a member of Nato,” he said.

Map of region

August 7, 2008

Mauritanian army coup condemned

Mauritanian army coup condemned

General Ould Abdel Aziz

General Ould Abdelaziz is now in charge in Mauritania

There has been widespread international condemnation of theĀ  military takeover in Mauritania.

Troops overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, detaining him after he tried to dismiss army chiefs.

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon called for the “restoration of constitutional order”. Condemnation has also come from the US, the EU, and the African Union (AU).

The military promised to hold fresh elections “as soon as possible”.

In a statement released a day after Wednesday’s coup, the junta promised the polls would be “free and transparent”.

Meanwhile US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for the immediate release of President Abdallahi and Prime Minister Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef, both of whom were detained by troops on Wednesday.

“The United States looks to all of our international partners to condemn this anti-democratic action,” she said in a statement.

The European Union warned that it may suspend aid to Mauritania.

The AU denounced the coup, demanded a return to constitutional government and said it was sending an envoy to the capital, Nouakchott, immediately.

Political crisis

On Wednesday the president tried to dismiss four senior army officers, including the head of the presidential guard, Gen Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who responded by launching the coup.

Map of Mauritania

A statement issued by a body calling itself the “State Council” and led by Gen Abdelaziz, was broadcast by Gulf-based Arabic television stations.

It said Mr Abdallahi – who came to power in polls last year, taking over from a military junta – was now a “former president”.

Troops deployed on Nouakchott’s streets fired tear gas to disperse about 50 protesters as the council annulled his previous decree dismissing the military chiefs.

The country has been in the grip of a political crisis since a vote of no confidence in the cabinet two weeks ago.

On Monday, 48 MPs walked out of the ruling party.

Reports suggest some of the generals orchestrated the mass resignation, says the BBC’s James Copnall in the region.

Food protests

Mauritania has a long history of coups, with the military involved in nearly every government since its independence from France in 1960.

Presidential elections held in 2007 ended a two-year period of military rule – the product of a military coup in 2005.

The elections were deemed to have been free and fair and appeared to herald a new era of democracy.

Earlier this year, however, the president dismissed the government amid protests over soaring food prices.

The cabinet that replaced it has been dogged by instability, lacking the support of a moderate Islamist party and a major opposition group that were in the former government.

Mauritania is one of the world’s poorest nations as well as its newest oil producer.

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