News & Current Affairs

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
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August 22, 2008

Russia to keep posts in Georgia

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 4:59 pm

Russia to keep posts in Georgia

A senior Russian general says Moscow intends to maintain a military presence of more than 2,000 troops in Georgia.

Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Russian forces would be stationed around the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the focus of recent conflict.

Correspondents on the ground say they have seen what appears to be a significant troop movement from Georgian positions to South Ossetia.

Georgia has said it will not accept any “annexation” of its land by Russia.

Russia’s land forces commander earlier said that all Russian combat troops would be moved back from Georgia proper to South Ossetia by the weekend and that most of the soldiers sent to the region as reinforcements would return to Russia within 10 days.

Correspondent says he has witnessed hundreds of Russian armored vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, withdrawing from the town of Igoeti, about 35km (21 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Our correspondent says buses of Georgian police are arriving to take control after Russian troops removed their road block and pulled out.

There are also reports of a pull-back from the Georgian flashpoint town of Gori to South Ossetia.

‘Snail’s pace’

At a briefing in Moscow, the deputy chief of the Russian military general staff, Gen Nogovitsyn, said the withdrawal of all combat troops was going according to plan.

“The troop pull-back has been started at a rate to make sure that the Russian troops be within the zone of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent by the end of 22 August,” he said.

“We are not going to correct this plan or increase the speed of withdrawal.”

Gen Nogovitsyn said Russian troops were setting up checkpoints on the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia.

The so-called zone of responsibility also includes Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki, and cuts across Georgia’s main east-west highway, which stretches from Tbilisi to the Black Sea.

Russian officials say the zone was established in principle in an agreement between Russia and Georgia which pre-dates this month’s conflict, but was never put into force.

Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili told Reuters that such a zone was “a violation of any agreement”.

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

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia began after Tbilisi tried to retake the Moscow-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia on 7 August, following days of clashes with separatists.

The fighting ended with an EU-brokered ceasefire deal, and a promise by Moscow to pull back its forces by 22 August.

But the commander of US forces in Europe, Gen John Craddock, said Russia was taking too long to pull back, saying “if they are moving, it is at a snail’s pace”.

The first of the Russian Black Sea Fleet warships, which have been deployed off the west coast of Georgia’s province of Abkhazia, has returned to its base at Sevastopol in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko criticised Russia’s use of ships from the base leased to Moscow, saying there was a danger of his country being passively drawn into an international conflict against its will. Protesters reportedly greeted the ship’s return on Friday.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has arrived in the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, to assess the humanitarian situation there.

Thousands of civilians are reported to be in urgent need of relief supplies.

The UN estimates that nearly 160,000 people have been displaced across the whole of Georgia since the conflict began.

The Georgian government is seeking $1-2bn (£0.5-1bn) in aid to repair and develop infrastructure following the conflict with Russia, the head of the US government aid agency, USAid, said. The World Bank has also announced that it is sending a team of experts to the country to assess its reconstruction needs.

‘War with Nato’

Diplomatic efforts at the UN have reached deadlock over rival resolutions on the crisis from France and Russia.

A woman walks down a destroyed main street in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia

Thousands of civilians are reported to be in urgent need of relief supplies

Russia has reiterated its opposition to a rival French text, which reaffirms Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili told the BBC he would never accept what he called Russia’s “annexation of its territory”.

He warned that Russia’s involvement in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia were intended to send a strong message to the West.

“If Nato fails now to come up with a united response, nobody’s safe, even if they are in Nato already,” he said.

“It’s all about reconsidering the role of Nato, the role of international law and borders in this part of the world. This is no longer about Georgia anymore.

“Russia decided to win war with Nato without firing a single shot at it.”

A Nato spokeswoman says Russia’s defence ministry has decided to halt all military co-operation with the bloc to protest at what Moscow calls the alliance’s biased, pro-Georgian view of the conflict.

The move by Moscow followed a Nato statement that there would be no “business as usual” with Moscow unless its troops pulled out of Georgia.

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 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


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August 10, 2008

Georgia ‘pulls out of S Ossetia’

Georgia ‘pulls out of S Ossetia’

Courtesy BBC

A man carries a boy, who was injured in South Ossetian regional capital Tskhinvali (9 August)

Russia accused Georgia of genocide against the South Ossetian people

Georgia has said its troops have pulled out of the breakaway region of South Ossetia and that Russian forces are in control of its capital, Tskhinvali.

But Russia said that while heavy artillery had been seen leaving the territory, Georgian troops were still present in other areas of the region.

Georgian officials later accused Russia of escalating the conflict in Abkhazia, another breakaway region in the west.

The US has described Russia’s actions as “dangerous and disproportionate”.

US Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffrey said that if the Russian escalation continued, it would have a “significant” long-term impact on relations between the Moscow and Washington.

“We’re alarmed by this situation,” he told reporters in Beijing.

Russian PM Vladimir Putin earlier suggested it was unlikely that South Ossetia would re-integrate with the rest of Georgia, saying the country’s territorial integrity had “suffered a fatal blow”.

Meanwhile, Russian warships have deployed near ports along the Georgian Black Sea coast, including Poti, where Georgia wheat and fuel shipments are being blocked. Russia insists there are no plans to stop oil exports, but says it reserves the right to search any ships.

In response, Ukraine has threatened to block the return of Russian warships to their Black Sea base at Sevastopol saying it does not want to be “drawn into a military conflict”.

Georgia says an additional 10,000 Russian soldiers have crossed into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The separatist authorities in Abkhazia have announced full military mobilisation.

The BBC’s Richard Galpin, who is on Georgia’s crossing point into South Ossetia, says he has heard artillery fire between Georgian and Russian troops in the area.

A photo showing what Georgian authorities say is the debris of a Russian bomber that they allege was shot down near the village of Dzevera on Saturday (10 August 2008)

Georgia published photos of what it said were the remains of a Russian jet

Local residents fleeing the area told him there was continued fighting on the outskirts of the Tskhinvali, although the city itself was said to be relatively quiet with Russian forces in full control.

Earlier, Georgian officials said Russian jets had bombed a military airfield close to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Three bombs had been dropped on the airfield, where there is a factory producing Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets, they said.

There was no independent confirmation of the attack, although the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse, who was in the city at the time, said he heard a loud explosion.

The current fighting began four days ago 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 separatists. In response to the Georgian crackdown, Moscow sent armoured units across the border frontier.

Georgia’s aspiration to join Nato… is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures
Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister

On Saturday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili called for an immediate ceasefire after Russian planes carried out air strikes on the Georgian town of Gori, not far from South Ossetia. Scores of civilians were reported to have been killed.

The Georgian parliament has approved a presidential decree declaring a “state of war” for 15 days.

There are conflicting figures about the casualties suffered on both sides, and independent verification has not been possible, but the numbers appeared to rise sharply on Saturday.

Russian and South Ossetian estimates put the death toll on the South Ossetian side at more than 1,500, mostly civilians. Georgian casualty figures ranged from 82 dead, including 37 civilians, to a figure of about 130 dead.

Thousands of people are known to have fled into the neighbouring Russian region of North Ossetia and other parts of Georgia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, called for civilians trapped in conflict areas to be granted safe passage out.

Abkhazia concerns

Speaking to the BBC, Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Georgian troops had pulled back to positions at or south of those held before 6 August, when the hostilities began.

From there, he said, they were engaged in fighting Russian forces.

ARMED FORCES COMPARED
Russian tanks (8 August 2008)
GEORGIA
Total personnel: 26,900
Main battle tanks (T-72): 82
Armoured personnel carriers: 139
Combat aircraft (Su-25): Seven
Heavy artillery pieces (including Grad rocket launchers): 95
RUSSIA
Total personnel: 641,000
Main battle tanks (various): 6,717
Armoured personnel carriers: 6,388
Combat aircraft (various): 1,206
Heavy artillery pieces (various): 7,550
Source: Jane’s Sentinel Country Risk Assessments

Mr Utiashvili told the BBC that the withdrawal was necessary because of the mass civilian and military casualties both within South Ossetia and elsewhere in Georgia.

He said that Georgia was now facing a “humanitarian catastrophe”, adding that 100 soldiers Georgian soldiers had been killed, and many more wounded.

A spokesman for the Russian military said Georgia had not withdrawn and insisted Georgia had to do that before any kind of ceasefire could come into effect.

A Russian commander in the conflict zone, Maj-Gen Marat Kulakhmetov, said the situation remained tense, and suggested both sides were preparing for further military action.

Earlier, Georgia said Russia had brought an additional 10,000 troops across Georgia’s frontiers – 6,000 by land into South Ossetia and 4,000 by sea into Abkhazia.

The head of the pro-Russian separatist authorities in Abkhazia also said he had sent 1,000 troops to the Tbilisi-controlled Kodori gorge and announced the “full mobilisation” of reservists.

“We are ready to act independently,” Sergei Bagapsh said. “We are ready to enforce order and go further if there is resistance from the Georgian side.”

A Georgian interior ministry official later told the BBC that Russia had launched what he called “all-out military aggression” against Georgia, including attacking areas outside the conflict zone in South Ossetia.

He said Russian planes were now bombing the western town of Zugdidi and the Georgian-controlled enclave within Abkhazia. The claims could not be independently verified.

Georgian refugees from villages near Tskhinvali block a road outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi (10 August 2008)

Georgia’s parliament has approved a decree declaring a state of war

The UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Edmond Mulet, said on Saturday that he feared the Abkhaz separatists were preparing to launch an offensive.

“At this point we are particularly concerned that the conflict appears to be spreading beyond South Ossetia into Abkhazia,” he said.

Speaking on Saturday in the nearby city of Vladikavkaz, Mr Putin accused Georgia of seeking “bloody adventures” and trying to drag other countries into the conflict.

In an outspoken attack, he referred directly to Georgia’s aspirations to join Nato, a move which Moscow strongly opposes.

Mr Putin described the actions of Georgian soldiers as genocide against the South Ossetian people and defended Moscow’s military action to intervene directly.

Redrawing the map

Meanwhile, a joint delegation of the US, EU and the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe is heading to Georgia in the hope of brokering a truce.

It comes as a third emergency session of the UN Security Council ended without an agreement on the wording of a statement calling for a ceasefire.

But emissaries from the US and Europe who are Nato members may not be seen as honest brokers by the Kremlin when it comes to Georgia, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall says.

The danger now is that Russia will not only use this crisis to demonstrate its military power in the region, but argue it is time to redraw the map, she adds.

BBC map


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August 9, 2008

Russian forces battle Georgians

Russian forces battle Georgians

Video still from Russia's Channel One shows a Georgian tank burning in Tskhinvali (08/08/2008)

Russian forces are locked in fierce clashes with Georgia     inside its breakaway South Ossetia region, reports say, amid fears of all-out war.

Moscow sent armoured units across the border after Georgia moved against Russian-backed separatists.

Russia says 12 of its soldiers are dead, and separatists estimate that 1,400 civilians have died.

Georgia accuses Russia of waging war, and says it has suffered heavy losses in bombing raids, which Russia denies.

Russian tanks have reportedly reached the northern suburbs of the regional capital, Tskhinvali, and there were conflicting claims about who was in control of the city.

“Now our peacekeepers are waging a fierce battle with regular forces from the Georgian army in the southern region of Tskhinvali,” a Russian military official was quoted as saying by Moscow-based news agency, Interfax.

After days of exchanging heavy fire with the separatists, Georgian forces moved on Thursday night to regain control of the region, which has had de facto independence since a war against Georgia that ended in 1992.

 Georgia and its breakaway regions
I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now
Lyudmila Ostayeva
Tskhinvali resident

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia was at war with his country.

He told the BBC: “Our troops are attacked by thousands of troops coming in from Russia.”

Mr Saakashvili said Georgia had shot down several Russian planes and accused Moscow of bombing Georgian air bases and towns, resulting in the death of 30 military personnel and civilians.

Late on Friday, the Georgian national security council said Mr Saakashvili was poised to declare a state of emergency.

Despite denials from Moscow, the Russian air force has been carrying out air raids in South Ossetia and Georgia itself, says the BBC’s Richard Galpin, in Gori, eastern Georgia.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he had to act to defend South Ossetia’s civilians, most of whom have been given Russian citizenship.

He also voiced anger over the reported fatalities of Russian servicemen in the breakaway province.

“We will not allow their deaths to go unpunished,” he said. “Those responsible will receive a deserved punishment.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had received reports that villages in South Ossetia were being ethnically cleansed.

The BBC’s Matthew Collin in Tbilisi says battles continue around Tskhinvali with the sound of explosions, rocket fire and military planes flying overhead.

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

SOUTH OSSETIA TIMELINE
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 on Tskhinvali

Fleeing resident Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, told AP news agency: “I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.”

International Red Cross spokeswoman Anna Nelson said it had received reports that hospitals in Tskhinvali were “overflowing” with casualties.

In other developments:

  • The UN Security Council fails to agree a statement on the crisis, despite holding a second session of talks on Friday evening
  • 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 half its contingent of 2,000 troops from Iraq to help deal with the crisis
  • Russia said it would cut all air links with Georgia from midnight on Friday
  • 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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