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Russia, Georgia fighting risks wider war

Georgian police officers help a Georgian soldier, wounded Friday in battle with South Ossetian separatists, in the town of Gori.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Georgian police officers help a Georgian soldier, wounded Friday in battle with South Ossetian separatists, in the town of Gori.

DZHAVA, Georgia — Russia sent an armored column into the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia on Friday after Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, launched a surprise offensive to crush separatists.

Witnesses said hundreds of civilians were killed. Early today, Russian warplanes attacked three Georgian military bases and key oil facilities. A senior Georgian official said by telephone that Russian bombers were flying over Georgia and that the presidential offices and residence in Tbilisi had been evacuated.

Neither side showed any indication of backing down. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared that "war has started," and President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia accused Russia of a "well-planned invasion" and mobilized Georgia's military reserves.

The fighting, which devastated the South Ossetia capital of Tskhinvali, threatened to ignite a wider war between Georgia and Russia, and escalate tensions between Moscow and Washington. Georgia said it was forced to launch the assault because of rebel attacks; the separatists alleged Georgia violated a cease-fire.

People fled in a terrified stream from the capital and said they saw bodies everywhere — on the streets, in cars, amid the rubble of buildings.

"It was impossible to count them," said Lyudmilia Ostayeva, 50.

The fighting broke out as much of the world's attention was focused on the start of the Olympic Games and many leaders, including Putin and President Bush, were in Beijing.

The timing suggested Saakashvili may have been counting on surprise to fulfill his longtime pledge to wrest back control of South Ossetia, a key to his hold on power. The rebels seek to unite with North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.

Saakashvili agreed the timing was not coincidental, but accused Russia of being the aggressor.

The incursion marked a fresh sign of Kremlin confidence and resolve, and also provided a test of the capacities of the Russian military, which Putin had tried to modernize and re-equip during his two presidential terms.

Seeking to prevent an all-out war, diplomats issued a flurry of statements calling on both sides to halt the fighting. The U.N. Security Council held two tense emergency sessions 12 hours apart with both sides using the forum to launch accusations. As the meeting recessed, officials promised a third session today.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went further, calling on Russia to withdraw its forces. But the Russian soldiers remained and Georgian officials reported at least one airstrike, on the Black Sea port of Poti, late Friday night.

The leader of South Ossetia's rebel government, Eduard Kokoity, said about 1,400 people were killed in the onslaught, the Interfax news agency reported. The toll could not be independently confirmed.

Both sides claim the battle started after the other side violated a cease-fire that had been declared just hours earlier after a week of sporadic clashes.

It was the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. Russian troops went in as peacekeepers but Georgia alleges they now back the separatists.

Russia, which has granted citizenship to most of the region's residents, appeared to lay much of the responsibility for ending the fighting on Washington.

In a phone conversation with Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Georgia must be persuaded to withdraw its forces, according to a statement.

Georgia, which borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership — a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its regional influence.

Saakashvili long has pledged to restore Tbilisi's rule over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia. Both regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and have built up ties with Moscow.

Early today, Georgia Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said that the Vaziani military base on the outskirts of the Georgian capital was bombed by warplanes during the night and that bombs fell in the area of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. He also said that two other Georgian military bases were hit and that warplanes bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizable oil shipment facility.

Utiashvili said there apparently were significant casualties and damage in the attacks, but that further details would not be known until the morning.

Russia's Defense Ministry said it was sending in reinforcements for its troops in the province, and Russian state television and Georgian officials said a tank convoy had crossed the border.

Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

>>fast facts

On the brink

The standoff between Russia and Georgia has been heating up over the past two years.

July 11: Georgia threatens to shoot down Russian planes if they intrude on Georgian airspace again.

April 3: Georgia fails to secure a road map to NATO membership when NATO leaders delay a decision under Russian pressure.

March 18: Moscow agrees to restore air travel, banned in 2006 after Georgia briefly detained four Russian military officers, between Russia and Georgia.

Nov. 15, 2007: Russia completes withdrawal of troops based in Georgia since the 1991 Soviet collapse, though thousands remain as peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia despite protests from the Georgia.

Nov. 7, 2007: Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili uses force to crack down on protesters and expels three Russian diplomats. Russian President Vladimir Putin expels three Georgian diplomats.

March 2006: Russia bans imports of Georgian wine, a major export.

January 2006: A pipeline explosion in Russia leaves Georgia without natural gas for a week during a harsh winter; Georgia blames Moscow.

Times wires

Russia, Georgia fighting risks wider war 08/08/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 11:03am]
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