News & Current Affairs

November 18, 2008

UK minister in Damascus meeting

UK minister in Damascus meeting

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks to reporters on arrival in Damascus

Mr Miliband wants Syria to play a role in Middle East peace-building

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is holding talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit, the first to Damascus by a top-level British official since 2001, is part of a tour that includes Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon.

Mr Miliband told that Syria had a role to play as a force for stability in the Middle East.

The visit is the latest in a run of exchanges between Syria and European nations aimed at easing tense ties.

It comes a month after Mr Miliband met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in London for talks.

‘Understanding’

Building mutual understanding between the UK and Syria was important, Mr Miliband told .

“Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East – it can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months I’ve been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about her (Syria’s) responsibilities in the region, in respect of terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process, and we’ve got the chance now to take those discussions further forward.”

Mr Miliband will meet the Syrian president and other top officials on Tuesday morning, before flying on to Lebanon.

Syria has faced diplomatic isolation since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, even though it denies any role in the killing.

It has also been shunned by the US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But European nations, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now initiating steps to bring Syria back into the international fold, arguing that engagement is the way forward.

On Monday David Milliband visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with top leaders.

He called on both Israelis and Palestinians to maintain the five-month-old ceasefire in Gaza, following recent outbreaks of violence that have triggered an Israeli blockade of the territory.

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October 2, 2008

US markets wary over rescue deal

US markets wary over rescue deal

Wall Street trader

The markets remain nervous

US shares have fallen sharply with investors cautious over whether the House of Representatives will back the revised bank rescue plan.

The House is due to discuss the scheme later, with a vote expected on Friday. The bill successfully passed through the US Senate on Wednesday.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones index was down 263 points or 2.4% at 10,571, a slide dragging European shares lower.

The falls came as France said it would host a summit on the financial crisis.

The UK’s FTSE 100 closed was down 1.8% to 4,870.3 points while Germany’s Dax index shed 2.5% and France’s Cac 40 lost 2.3%.

Sentiment was further hit by glum economic data – showing that the number of people filing for new unemployment benefit claims rose to a seven-year high, while factory orders had seen a steeper-than-expected drop in August.

European talks

The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the special meeting on Saturday would discuss a co-ordinated response to the financial turmoil amongst European members of the G8 ahead of a meeting of world finance leaders in Washington next week.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is due to attend, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet.

Investors are still concerned about the efficiency of this rescue plan and how it can help the global economy
Aric Au, Phillip Securities

But with just two days to go before the talks start, EU members are deeply divided, correspondent said.

France and Holland favor a European response to help banks hit by the credit crisis while Germany and Luxembourg believe a joint rescue plan is not necessary.

European leaders have denied speculation that they wanted to establish a unified 300bn euro ($418.4bn; £236bn) banking rescue deal along the same lines as the US plan.

The rescue idea was said to be being proposed by France, but Mr Sarkozy insisted that there were no such plans.

“I deny both the amount and the principle [of such a plan],” he said.

‘Essential’

In the US, a number of changes had to be made to the $700bn (£380bn) bail-out plan in order to help win approval in the Senate.

These include raising the government’s guarantee on savings from $100,000 to $250,000, tax breaks to help small businesses, expansion of child tax credit, and help for victims of recent hurricanes.

President George W Bush said that the package was “essential to the financial security of every American”.

However, economists said doubts remained about how effective the package would be.

“Investors are still concerned about the efficiency of this rescue plan and how it can help the global economy,” said Aric Au of Phillip Securities in Hong Kong.

McCain and Obama

US presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama, who both returned from the campaign trail for last night’s Senate debate, voted in favor of the rescue plan.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said he was happy with the result and praised both presidential candidates for voting.

“I think it shows that when we work together we can accomplish good things,” he said.

Mitch McConnell, leader of Republican senators, was also in jubilant mood.

“This was a measure that was much needed, to unfreeze the credit markets and get America’s economy working again,” he said.

September 19, 2008

Rice criticises ‘isolated’ Russia

Rice criticises ‘isolated’ Russia

Russia is becoming increasingly authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said.

In a strongly-worded speech, Ms Rice said Moscow was on a “one-way path to isolation and irrelevance”.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Russia have been strained by the recent conflict in Georgia.

Earlier, Russia’s president said the two nations should not risk established ties over “trivial matters.”

Dmitry Medvedev said it would be “politically short-sighted” if Washington and Moscow were to endanger their political and economic ties.

However, Ms Rice suggested in her speech that following the conflict in Georgia, Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization had been put in doubt.

Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and launched a full-scale invasion
Condoleezza Rice

The US has already shelved a civilian nuclear deal with Russia, but despite tensions the two countries are maintaining diplomatic links.

Ms Rice held a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just hours before delivering her speech, and Russia is also due to join an international meeting on Iran’s nuclear program on Friday.

Our correspondent says Moscow is also telling the US that its co-operation is needed over issues like Iran and North Korea, with many in Washington feeling the Russians have a point.

Several hours after Ms Rice spoke, it emerged that a Russian submarine test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

An official from Russia’s defence ministry is quoted as saying that the test – carried out in Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka peninsula – went according to plan.

‘Deeply disconcerting’

Speaking at an event organized by the German Marshall Fund in Washington, Ms Rice acknowledged that Georgia had fired the first shots in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Russian troops in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali

Ms Rice said Russia had tried to dismember Georgia

“The Georgian government launched a major military operation into Tskhinvali [the capital of South Ossetia] and other areas of that separatist region,” she said.

“Regrettably, several Russian peacekeepers were killed in the fighting,” she added.

But Ms Rice said that Russia had escalated the conflict.

“Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and launched a full-scale invasion across an internationally recognized border,” she said, adding that Russia had also violated the terms of a ceasefire negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ms Rice said it had been “deeply disconcerting” that Russia had tried to “dismember” Georgia by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and argued that Russia’s actions were part of what she described as a “worsening pattern of behavior”.

“I refer… to Russia’s intimidation of its sovereign neighbours, its use of oil and gas as a political weapon… its threat to target peaceful neighbours with nuclear weapons… and its persecution – or worse – of Russian journalists and dissidents,” she added.

Pledging help to rebuild Georgia, Ms Rice said the US and Europe would not let Russia benefit from aggression.

‘Taking the bait’

Ms Rice admitted that Georgia could have responded better to the events last month in South Ossetia.

We will not allow Russia to wield a veto over the future of our Euro-Atlantic community
Condoleezza Rice

“We warned our Georgian friends that Russia was baiting them, and that taking this bait would only play into Moscow’s hands,” she said.

However Ms Rice, an expert on the Soviet Union, also said that Russia could not blame its behavior on the enlargement of Nato.

“Since the end of the Cold War, we and our allies have worked to transform Nato… into a means for nurturing the growth of a Europe whole, free and at peace.”

The promise of Nato membership had been a positive incentive for states to build democratic institutions and reform their economies, she added.

And she insisted that Russia would not be allowed to dictate who joined the Nato alliance.

“We will not allow Russia to wield a veto over the future of our Euro-Atlantic community – neither what states we offer membership, nor the choice of those states to accept it,” she said

“We have made this particularly clear to our friends in Ukraine.”

The secretary of state was also critical of the domestic situation inside Russia.

“What has become clear is that the legitimate goal of rebuilding Russia has taken a dark turn – with the rollback of personal freedoms, the arbitrary enforcement of the law [and] the pervasive corruption at various levels of Russian society,” she said.

Russia’s leaders were risking the future progress of the Russian people, she said, declaring that Russia’s leaders “are putting Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance”.

September 18, 2008

Mrs Sarkozy meets Metallica on TV

Mrs Sarkozy meets Metallica on TV

Singer Carla Bruni, the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has given a rare performance, appearing alongside rock bands Metallica and Kings of Leon.

The acts were all on UK music TV show Later… with Jools Holland, where Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy told the host her husband was “very kind” about her music.

“I play it at home and I disturb him with it in the middle of the night,” the 40-year-old former model said.

She married Mr Sarkozy in February and released her third album in July.

The TV show, starting its 33rd series, is renowned for its eclectic mix of music.

Metallica, Carla Bruni and Jools Holland (far right)

Metallica provided a contrast to Carla Bruni on Jools Holland’s show

Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy tapped her foot and clapped as heavy metal monsters Metallica performed tracks from their number one album Death Magnetic.

But their music could not be further apart, with Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy’s sultry, breathy chanson style evoking Parisian cafes, while Metallica normally soundtrack sweaty stadiums.

As well as the French first lady and Metallica, the program also featured the group at the top of the UK singles chart – Tennessee blues-rockers the Kings of Leon.

One edition of the show went out live on Tuesday, while another extended version was filmed to be broadcast on BBC Two on Friday.

Jools Holland, the former Squeeze musician turned TV host, interviewed Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy for both shows.

Her appearance came just days after she met Pope Benedict XVI, while she has also accompanied Mr Sarkozy meeting dignitaries such as the Queen and the Dalai Lama in recent months.

During the live episode, Holland asked what it was like mixing her roles as a singer-songwriter and president’s wife.

Carla Bruni
It’s not so hard – it’s just like playing in a film
Carla Bruni on being the French first lady

“I don’t really mix them up – I separate them,” she replied. “I play my music and then I go with my husband when he needs me.”

He was involved in her music but did not act like a critic or a fan, she said – and it did not “drive him mad” when she played it in the middle of the night.

“It’s just a very different world for him,” she said. “But he’s very kind and he listens to all my doubts.”

Asked whether she wrote songs about her husband – who was not present for the TV show – she simply replied: “Well, I write songs about my life.”

Wearing an elegant trouser suit, Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy performed one song, Tu Es Ma Came, on the live show.

She translated it variously as: “You’re my junk, you’re my type, you’re my cup of tea.”

It was about “being addicted to someone in a toxic way and in a lovely way”, she said.

During the recorded show, she also performed L’Amoureuse, or The Woman in Love, with a chorus that repeats the line: “Je suis l’amoureuse.”

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy with Pope Benedict XVI

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy met Pope Benedict XVI last week

But she has said 95% of her latest album was written before she met Mr Sarkozy.

During the interview for Friday’s show, she gave further insights into her new life.

“I have my husband’s world,” she said. “It’s like I just try to be with him and be cool about it and not change everything I know and my way of living.

“It’s not so hard. It’s just like playing in a film.”

She then accompanied Holland on a version of US blues singer Bessie Smith’s song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.

Security fears

Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy’s latest album, Comme Si De Rien N’Etait, went straight to number one in France.

It came six years after her first release, Quelqu’un M’a Dit, which sold two million copies around the world.

She had previously said she would not play any more live shows for security reasons until her husband leaves his job.

Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy was given a warm reception, but the biggest cheer of the night went to Metallica, who closed the recorded show with their 1991 piledriver Enter Sandman.

The other acts on the bill were UK rapper Sway, New Jersey singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins and British pop newcomer VV Brown.

September 14, 2008

Pope holds huge Mass in Lourdes

Pope holds huge Mass in Lourdes

Pope Benedict XVI has told tens of thousands of pilgrims in the southern French town of Lourdes that love can be stronger than all the world’s evil.

The 81-year-old pontiff gave the homily during an open-air Sunday Mass at the highly-revered Roman Catholic shrine.

Benedict is in Lourdes to mark the 150th anniversary of what many Roman Catholics believe was a vision of the Virgin Mary by a young local girl.

On Saturday, he also celebrated an outdoor Mass in the capital, Paris.

More than 200,000 pilgrims made the trip to Lourdes for Benedict’s first papal Mass at the shrine.

The pontiff is making a three-day pilgrimage to the sanctuary, which is visited each year by six million believers.

There is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weakness and sins
Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict looked elated and moved by the rapturous welcome he received from the crowds – some of the faithful had queued through the night to make ensure their place.

Security has been tight, with more than 3,000 police officers drafted in to the area.

After his arrival at the shrine, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Benedict prayed at the Grotto of Massabielle, also known as the Cave of Apparitions.

The riverside site is where 14-year-old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous told local clergy in 1858 the Virgin Mary had appeared to her.

When he arrived on Saturday night, Benedict also drank water from a spring that believers say has miraculous healing powers.

Pope Benedict XVI has celebrated his first Mass at Lourdes

Saying Mass from under white canopies shaped like sails, the Pope told his listeners to be true to their faith because “it tells us that there is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weakness and sins”.

He said: “The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us.”

Pope Benedict arrived in Paris on Friday for his first visit to France since becoming Pope in 2005. He was welcomed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he praised for promoting the role of religion in society.

France staunchly upholds a 1905 law that enshrines the separation of Church and state, but Mr Sarkozy has supported efforts to ease the country’s strict secularism law.

France is a Roman Catholic country but Sunday Mass attendance is now below 10%.

Before his visit, a French newspaper poll showed that more than half of those questioned had a positive view of the Pope.


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September 8, 2008

Russians ‘agree Georgia deadline’

Russians ‘agree Georgia deadline’

Russia has conditionally agreed to remove its forces from Georgian land – excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia – by the second week of October.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the pull-out would happen once 200 EU monitors deployed to South Ossetia.

Speaking after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Medvedev said the withdrawal was dependent on guarantees that Georgia would not use force again.

But he made no mention of withdrawing troops from South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

And he defended Russia’s controversial decision to recognise the independence of both breakaway regions, saying the move was “irrevocable”.

Criticism of US

Among the measures announced after the Moscow talks, Mr Medvedev said there would be international talks on the conflict, which would take place in Geneva on 15 October.

And Russia agreed to remove a key checkpoint from near the port of Poti within a week.

NEW PEACE MEASURES
Russia to close checkpoints between Poti and Senaki within a week
Some 200 EU monitors in South Ossetia by 1 October
Russian forces to withdraw from undisputed land within 10 days of monitors deploying
International talks on the conflict to be held in Geneva on 15 October

Again Mr Medvedev made the pledge conditional on Georgia signing a pledge not to use force against Abkhazia.

Afterwards he said the EU delegation had handed him a letter, signed by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, pledging not to use force.

The Russian president confirmed that his troops would pull out “from the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the line preceding the start of hostilities”.

“This withdrawal will be implemented within 10 days after the deployment in these zones of international mechanisms, including not less than 200 observers from the European Union, which must take place not later than 1 October 2008,” he said.

But he was uncompromising in his tone towards the Georgian government and the US.

“[Georgia] is trying to reinforce its military capability and some of our partners, especially the United States, are helping them in that.”

‘Fruitful’ talks

The two leaders took part in more than three hours of talks, which also involved the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the European Commission head, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Sarkozy, who was pressing Russia to meet the terms of a ceasefire agreement he helped broker on 12 August, described the meeting as “fruitful”.

Mr Medvedev and Mr Sarkozy in Moscow, 08/09

The two leaders were in talks for more than three hours

He said the exact details of the Geneva talks were still under discussion, stressing that the issue of refugees returning to their homes would be at the heart of the meeting.

Russia’s call for international talks on the status of the two breakaway regions – part of the 12 August ceasefire deal – proved highly controversial.

President Saakashvili flatly rejected attempts to throw their status into doubt.

Mr Sarkozy will now fly to Tbilisi and run through the latest deal with Mr Saakashvili.

Russian troops entered Georgia on 7 August after responding to Georgian attempts to reassert its control in South Ossetia.

The two regions have had de facto independence since a civil war in the early 1990s, and Moscow has strongly backed their breakaway governments.

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev in August 2008

President Sarkozy (L) brokered a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to arrive in Moscow for talks with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the crisis in Georgia.

He is joined by the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the European Commission head, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Sarkozy is expected to press Russia to fully implement a peace plan he brokered to end the fighting.

Meanwhile, Georgia has gone to the UN’s highest court over what it claims are Russian human rights abuses.

Judges at the International Court of Justice in the Hague are being asked to impose emergency measures to halt what Georgia says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Russia in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian forces remain in South Ossetia and large parts of Georgian territory after it responded heavily to Georgian attempts last month to recapture the separatist region.

Difficult goals

After talks in Moscow, the three senior European figures are due to go on to the Georgian capital, Tblisi, to meet President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia says it is honoring the terms of a six-point plan agreed to end the conflict.

However, European nations do not agree.

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 but Russian peacekeepers may take unspecified “additional security measures”
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

President Sarkozy wants Russian troops to pull back from their current positions in Georgia – well beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The European trio is also expected to press the Russians on arrangements for a strengthened international effort to monitor developments on the ground.

Some European leaders have already warned that there can be “no business as usual” with Russia until the peace plan is fully implemented, and the European Union has suspended talks on a new partnership agreement with Moscow.

However, with winter approaching, individual European countries continue to consume Russian oil and gas as usual.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and its continuing failure to implement the agreement to the letter, will have profound consequences for Russian relations with the EU.

It will also make it difficult for President Sarkozy to achieve his goals in Moscow, he says.

August 24, 2008

US warship docks in Georgia port

US warship docks in Georgia port

USS McFaul passing through Bosphorus Strait heading for Georgia 22 August

The USS McFaul is the first of three ships to arrive in Georgia

A  has arrived in the Georgian port of Batumi carrying the first delivery of aid supplies by sea.

Russian forces are still in control of the military port of Poti, to the north of Batumi, after withdrawing most of its combat troops from the country.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the ceasefire, has urged Moscow to pull out those forces too.

Meanwhile, a train carrying fuel has exploded after hitting a mine near Gori, Georgia’s interior ministry said.

A huge plume of black smoke could be seen across the region, the AFP news agency reported.

Interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said there had been several explosions near an abandoned Georgian military base where the Russian troops, on leaving Gori, had left a stockpile of munitions taken from the Georgian army.

“Our teams can’t even get close to the area because it is in flames and the munitions are continuously exploding,” he said.

The spokesman suggested the stockpile or the train track could have been mined by the Russian forces. There have been no details about possible casualties.

Georgian authorities had been hoping to help thousands of refugees return to Gori on Sunday having carried out a mine-sweeping operation in the town.

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia erupted after Tbilisi tried to retake its province of South Ossetia – which broke away in 1992 and was supported by Moscow – in a surprise offensive on 7 August. The offensive followed a series of clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces.

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 but Russian peacekeepers may take unspecified “additional security measures”
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Crisis day-by-day

Eyewitness: Russian withdrawal

Russia’s game plan

The conflict left hundreds of people dead and created tens of thousands of refugees. Many have been returning to their damaged or destroyed homes since the Russian withdrawal.

The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR reported this week that, according to Russian estimates, more than 30,000 people from South Ossetia had fled to North Ossetia. Another 128,000 were estimated to have been displaced within Georgia.

International aid agencies are working on the ground and the US has already delivered some aid by military cargo plane.

The destroyer USS McFaul is reported to be carrying supplies such as blankets, hygiene kits and baby food.

Two more US ships are due to dock later this week.

The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse, in Tbilisi, said that apart from delivering aid, the arrival of US naval personnel is undoubtedly intended to send a signal to the Russians – that America is serious about its support for Georgia.

But, he adds, the prospect of US and Russian armed forces actually meeting on Georgian soil is one that both sides seem keen to avoid.

Batumi is not a natural harbour for a naval vessel the size of the USS McFaul to dock but Russian forces have been fortifying their positions at the key port of Poti, further up the coast.

On Saturday, Mr Sarkozy, welcomed the withdrawal of Russian forces so far, but urged Moscow to pull its troops back from Poti and Senaki, which is the site of Georgia’s main air base.

Russia says it has a duty and a right to keep its forces in a buffer zone around the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – though it acknowledges that Poti falls well outside that zone.

Georgia map

August 17, 2008

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian tank in Georgia (16 August 2008)

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

The Russian commander of front line forces in Georgia has told that a gradual withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia is under way.

Maj Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said he had given the order for Russian soldiers to be replaced by peacekeepers.

Russian forces in position 35km (22 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on the road to Gori, close to South Ossetia.

Russia said it did not have a timetable for a full withdrawal from Gori.

Russia still controls almost all of the main arterial highway running east-west through Georgia, and the main towns along the route.

Russia’s claimed redeployment comes a day after Moscow signed a French-brokered peace plan to end the crisis.

Conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to retake its Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia.

It led to a massive counter-offensive by Russia, with Russia moving deeper into Georgian territory.

The US has demanded Russian troops pull out, but Moscow says it will only withdraw from Georgian territory once extra security measures are in place.

International attention

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who mediated the peace deal on behalf of the European Union, has warned Moscow that the ceasefire bars its forces from any “major urban area” in Georgia.

However, in a letter addressed to his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili, Mr Sarkozy said Russian troops did have the right to patrol “a few kilometres” beyond the conflict zone in South Ossetia.

But he underlined that clauses in the agreement permitting Russia to implement additional security measures “in no way limit or put in danger the freedom of movement and travel along the road and rail axes of Georgia” and could not be applied in any towns or cities.

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

“I am particularly thinking of the city of Gori,” he said, which is the largest town close to the South Ossetia border.

There is a much reduced Russian military presence in the town compared with Saturday – though Russian soldiers still control the town’s key entry and exit points.

He says that even if Russian peacekeepers replace soldiers, local residents say it will not make much difference.

Meanwhile, US President George W Bush has reiterated his staunch support for ally Georgia.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is due to hold talks with Mr Saakashvili in Tbilisi later on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has called on the Russian authorities to immediately take steps to end attacks by South Ossetian militias on ethnic Georgians in Gori and to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach vulnerable civilians.

“The Russian military has effective control of the Gori region, making it responsible for the security and well-being of all people living there,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s Europe deputy director.

Russian control

The BBC’s Richard Galpin, who has spent the past two days traveling from the Black Sea port of Poti to Tbilisi, says Georgian forces seem to be surrendering control of the highway to the Russians.

Georgian refugee in Tbilisi (16 August 2008)

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

In the western town of Senaki, our correspondent saw large numbers of Russian troops moving around on Saturday.

Further east in Zestafoni, he witnessed the panic of local residents as the word spread that the Russian army was approaching.

Cars sped away from roadblocks set up by the Georgian police, the drivers realizing their hopes of reaching Tbilisi had been dashed.

When the Russians arrived, they stayed only a few minutes after apparently being told there was no military base to take over.

Our correspondent says he then followed the Russian troops as they entered the central town of Khashuri, where they were given an escort by the local police.

He spoke to one Russian soldier who said he believed their final destination would be the Georgian capital, although the Kremlin flatly denied this. Another soldier said he expected to be in Georgia for a year.

Georgia has meanwhile accused pro-Russian Abkhaz separatist fighters of taking over 13 villages and a hydroelectric power plant. There has so far been no independent confirmation.

Security steps

Among the six points in the ceasefire deal, both sides agreed to pull back their forces to their positions before hostilities began on 7 August.

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

President Bush has said Mr Medvedev’s signing of the truce is “hopeful”, but that there can be no question that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain within Georgian borders, which are internationally recognised.

Reports suggest Mr Saakashvili only reluctantly agreed to another of the plan’s clauses – international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Map of region


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August 12, 2008

Russia ‘ends Georgia operation’

Russia ‘ends Georgia operation’

Courtesy BBC

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Mr Medvedev made his announcement before meeting the French president

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an end to military operations against Georgia, the Kremlin says.

He told officials he had taken the decision to end the campaign after restoring security for civilians and peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

However, Russia has been highly critical of Georgia’s leadership, and there were no signs of imminent talks.

Before the announcement, there were fresh reports of Russian warplanes bombing the Georgian town of Gori.

Witnesses told  that several people were killed when a bomb hit a hospital in the town, which is 10 miles (15km) from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

A reporter for Reuters news agency said several bombs exploded in front of his vehicle, while a Reuters photographer spoke of seeing dead and injured people lying in the streets.

Officials in the Netherlands, meanwhile, confirmed that a Dutch TV cameraman was among those killed in Gori and a journalist was wounded.

And in Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, separatist rebels continued an offensive against Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge region – the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian military control.

‘Safety restored’

News of Mr Medvedev’s decision emerged as French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Moscow expecting to press Russia on the need for a ceasefire.

According to a statement, Mr Medvedev told his defence minister and chief of staff that “the goal has been attained”.

Should centres of resistance or other aggressive attempts arise, you must take the decision to destroy them
Dmitry Medvedev
Russian president

I’ve decided to finish the operation to force the Georgian authorities to peace. The safety of our peacekeeping forces and civilian population has been restored.

“The aggressor has been punished, having sustained considerable losses. Its armed forces have been disorganised,” he added.

There is no sign yet that Russia is willing to engage in talks with the government in Tbilisi.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has insisted that Georgia must sign a legally binding document on the non-use of force.

And Mr Medvedev warned that Russia would not tolerate any further Georgian military activity in South Ossetia, saying: “Should centres of resistance or other aggressive attempts arise, you must take the decision to destroy them.”

The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse, near Gori, reported seeing sporadic artillery fire around the town right up until shortly before the Russian announcement.

Our correspondent said there was no sign of Russian troops south of Gori, but said there were a number of Georgian military vehicles abandoned or burnt on the road outside the town.

Map of region


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