News & Current Affairs

August 23, 2008

Russia accused of abusing truce

Russia accused of abusing truce

A Russian soldier, his helmet marked "Peacekeeping Forces", watches combat troops pull out of Georgia on 22 August

Shoulder and helmet badges mark out Russia’s peacekeepers

The US and France have accused Russia of failing to comply with the terms of its ceasefire with Georgia by creating buffer zones and checkpoints.

Russia announced the full withdrawal of combat forces from Georgia proper on Friday but insisted hundreds of other troops could stay under the ceasefire.

France brokered the ceasefire to end fighting over Georgia’s pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Its terms are vague about the extent of any buffer zones, analysts say.

A White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said the checkpoints and buffer zones set up by Russia were not part of the ceasefire agreement.

A spokesman for the French foreign ministry, Eric Chevalier, said a United Nations Security Council resolution was needed to clarify exactly what the ceasefire agreement covers.

The Russian military say they intend to maintain a peacekeeping presence in Georgia, controlling buffer zones around both South Ossetia and the other breakaway province, Abkhazia.

The zones include sections of the main highway from the capital Tbilisi to the Black Sea as well as Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki.

‘Clearly stated’

US President George W Bush and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy agreed in a telephone conversation on Friday that Russia was “not in compliance [with the ceasefire] and that Russia needs to come into compliance now”, Mr Johndroe said.

“Compliance means compliance with that plan,” he added.

“We haven’t seen that yet. It’s my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory, and they need to do that.”

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

“Establishing checkpoints, buffer zones, are definitely not part of the agreement,” US state department spokesman Robert Wood added.

The French spokesman told that the ceasefire had stipulated that Russia’s forces “should go back to the situation before the hostilities started”.

“The idea is that, yes, for a temporary period some Russian peace forces could stay on… next to the [border] line of Ossetia but it’s temporary, it should be for patrolling and it should be until we have an international mechanism,” Mr Chevalier said.

“It was clearly stated that this presence first has to be through patrolling, no fixed presence and, second, should not have an effect on the freedom of movement on roads and trains in this place.”

The UN Security Council split this week over a resolution, with rival drafts submitted by Moscow, and the US and its allies.

Western diplomats fear that Moscow is determined to define the parameters of the interim security arrangements on its own terms.

Part of the problem, he adds, is the extraordinary vagueness of the EU-brokered ceasefire deal, which speaks only of “additional security measures” in “the immediate proximity of South Ossetia” – proximity being defined as a distance of “several kilometers”.

‘Zone of responsibility’

Moscow intends to maintain a peacekeeping presence of nearly 2,600 troops in the buffer zones for the foreseeable future, backed by armoured cars and helicopters.

Of these, 2,142 will be deployed along Abkhazia’s de facto border and 452 on the de facto border of South Ossetia, the Russian military said.

Russia’s so-called “zone of responsibility” also includes Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki, some 40km (25 miles) from the boundary with Abkhazia, which sits astride vital road and rail links to the Black Sea port of Poti.

Correspondents on the ground say they have seen what appears to be a significant Russian troop movement out of Georgia.

Correspondents in Igoeti – just 35km (21 miles) from the capital, Tbilisi – says he saw Russian troops leave the town, joining a column of hundreds of armoured vehicles on the road towards South Ossetia.

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

But another correspondent in the nearby town of Korvaleti says Georgian police vehicles there are still being blocked at checkpoints.

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia began after Tbilisi tried to retake South Ossetia – which broke away in 1992 – in a surprise offensive on 7 August.

Georgia map


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August 22, 2008

Russia to keep posts in Georgia

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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.

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August 14, 2008

US warns Russia of lasting impact

US warns Russia of lasting impact

Russian soldiers point their guns at Georgian troops on the outskirts of Gori, 14 Aug

Russian troops have begun handing back the town of Gori to the Georgians

The US defense chief has warned relations with Russia could be damaged for years if Moscow does not step back from “aggressive” actions in Georgia.

But Robert Gates said he did not see a need for US military force in Georgia.

His words came as Moscow said the idea of Georgian territorial integrity was an irrelevance.

Georgia’s breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – would never agree to being part of Georgia again, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Earlier, Russia said it had begun handing back the town of Gori to Georgian police but insisted its troops would stay in the area.

A Russian general said his forces were there to remove weaponry and help restore law and order in Gori, which lies some 15km (10 miles) from South Ossetia and on a key route to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Plans for a joint patrol force by the Georgian police and Russian military had failed.

Our correspondent says there are also reports of Russian military vehicles moving around the town of Senaki and the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti in western Georgia.

US military aircraft unload relief supplies at Tbilisi airport

Russia has questioned what is in US aid deliveries to Georgia

Moscow had earlier denied the reports but Russia’s deputy chief of staff, Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told a televised news conference it was legitimate for Russians to be in Poti as part of intelligence-gathering operations.

Georgia’s Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze later said a convoy of more than 100 Russian tanks and other vehicles was moving from the major western town of Zugdidi deeper into Georgia.

Mr Gates said that despite concerns that Moscow may not be keen quickly to leave Georgian territory, the Russians did seem to be pulling back.

“They appear to be withdrawing their forces back towards Abkhazia and to the zone of conflict… towards South Ossetia,” he said.

Gen James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said he believed Russia was “generally complying” with the terms of the truce, which called for its withdrawal from hostilities.

But, Mr Gates warned: “If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the US-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.”

The Russians were trying to redress what they regarded as the many concessions forced on them after the break-up of the Soviet Union and were trying to “reassert their international status”, Mr Gates said.

Georgia was also being punished for its efforts to integrate with the West and in particular to join Nato, the defense secretary went on.

Mr Gates’s address was the first effort by a senior member of the Bush administration to set out what the Americans believe is happening in Russia.

But while Mr Gates said Russia’s aggressive posture was not acceptable, our correspondent says, he took an unusual step for the Bush administration in ruling out the use of US force. This is not a fight that America wants to have.

Withdrawal

Georgia attacked the rebel region of South Ossetia from Gori a week ago, prompting Russian retaliation. The Georgians say it followed continuous provocation.

A Georgian state TV reporter was injured by gunfire while she was on air

Both sides agreed to a French-brokered ceasefire on Tuesday, amid international concern, but it has seemed fragile so far.

Earlier on Thursday in Moscow, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would respect any decision South Ossetia and Abkhazia made about their future status.

His words followed warnings from the US that Russia had to respect Georgia’s territorial sovereignty and withdraw its forces.

Meanwhile, the US has sent its second shipment of humanitarian aid into Georgia.

Russia has questioned whether the deliveries contain only humanitarian supplies.

Map of region

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