Thursday, August 14, 2008

Russians begin Georgia handover

The BBC reports:

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

A top Russian general refused to say when troops would withdraw - they would remain for days to remove weaponry and help restore law and order in Gori.

A BBC correspondent said a series of explosions was heard coming from hills around the town on Thursday.

Georgia attacked the rebel region of South Ossetia from Gori a week ago, prompting Russian retaliation.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met the leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - Georgia's other separatist region - and pledged to support any decision the regions made about their borders.

"Not only do we support it but we will guarantee them both in the Caucasus and throughout the world," Mr Medvedev said.

The Georgian parliament voted unanimously on Thursday to withdraw Georgia from a Russia-dominated regional bloc, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Meanwhile, the US has reiterated its support for Georgia, sending the first shipments of humanitarian aid into the country. A US envoy to the region said the initial consignment of bedding and other vital supplies was the first of many that would be arriving by sea and air.

Russia has expressed concern about whether the US is delivering only humanitarian aid.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in France for talks with French and current EU President Nicolas Sarkozy. She is expected to go on to Tbilisi on Friday, to express US backing for Georgia's government.

No pull-out timetable

Russian troops occupied Gori after pushing Georgian forces out of South Ossetia, leading to a mass retreat from the city by Georgian troops and civilians.

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

Gori, which lies some 15km (10 miles) from the South Ossetian border and is a key link to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, had been reported calm earlier on Thursday.

The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse, in the town, said local residents reported feeling safe and secure on Wednesday night, with Russian troops clearly in charge of the town.

But the situation appeared to change on Thursday as a series of blasts were heard around Gori. Journalists, including the BBC's correspondent, were forced to leave their positions quickly.

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

General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of staff of Russia's armed forces, told a news conference that Russian forces in the region were not ready to withdraw yet.

He said they were protecting abandoned weapons and ammunition, preventing looting and clearing mines left by Georgian forces. They were also liaising with local Georgian authorities and would ensure the security of humanitarian operations, he said.

Elsewhere, eyewitnesses in the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti said that Russian troops had entered the town in armoured vehicles.

Moscow had earlier denied the reports but Gen Nogovitsyn said it was legitimate for Russian peacekeepers to be in Poti as part of intelligence-gathering operations.

He also said Russia was worried "as a matter of principle" about what supplies were being delivered by the US to Tbilisi airport.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that more than 100 Russian vehicles, some of them armoured, have gathered outside the major western Georgian town of Zugdidi.

Nato debate rekindled

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 11, 2008

Loathing mounts as Russia reveals iron fist

The Financial Times reports:

The people of Tirdzsuzi, a settlement on a picturesque rural road, remember how things used to be with their neighbours in the town of Tskhinvali, 20km away.

Despite the fact that Tirdzsuzi is made up of ethnic Georgians, while Tskhinvali is composed largely of ethnic Ossetians, “this never used to bother anyone”, says Mabuku Sakulachvili, an elderly farmer. “We used to trade with them, we used to marry each other. There were never any problems.”

As he speaks an explosion a few kilometres away is a reminder that the town is just 6km from the front line. Russian troops were advancing through the South Ossetian breakaway region towards the settlement on Sunday, after capturing Tskhinvali from Georgian troops after days of fighting.

“Its those tanks,” says Mr Sakulachvili, waving his hand to indicate five Georgian T-72 tanks hidden – badly – in foliage. “The Russian jets must have found them.”

All along this road the occasional antennae sticking out of a tree is the only sign of the Georgian army deployed along the likely route of a Russian advance. With camouflage as their only defence, they are constant prey for Russian fighter aircraft darting through the skies, bombing almost with impunity.

Georgia’s air force lies in ruins, largely destroyed on runways within the first hours of the war.

Mr Sakulachvili’s son, Irakli, is in one of the units camped out on the road, a gangly youth wearing US-issue desert camouflage that he got during a seven-month stint with coalition troops in Iraq. He announces he cannot talk to reporters, and his comrades do the same.

The tiny Georgian army that all weekend has faced a far superior force of Russians has surprised its foes with its tenacity and skill. But its tiny core of a thousand or so fierce and professional fighters, trained by US and Israeli advisers, has been all but overwhelmed by the air power the Russians have brought to bear.

There is little to back up this professional force, which withdrew from their positions on Sunday in what was described by the government as a “tactical relocation”. The bulk of the forces on Sunday that lay along the road from Tskhinvali were conscripts and national guardsmen with a week of military training. Some were without uniforms and there was a desperate lack of vehicles: city buses and civilian cars were pressed into ­service.

In the regional centre of Gori, south of Tirdzsuzi and 30km from Tskhinvali, the situation is dire. Most residents left the city after Russian jets bombed the town on Saturday morning, hitting an army base but also three apartment buildings nearby. The bombs blasted through the buildings, hurling flaming bodies into the streets, residents say.

Two hospitals in the town are full of injured from the front, and sobbing mothers and wives wait for news of their loved ones. Reservists who a few days ago were bank tellers or janitors mill around gloomily, waiting for orders.

A unit of Georgian commandos, wearing bandanas and driving sleek four-wheel drives, show footage captured on a mobile phone of the wreckage of a Russian Tu-22 fighter bomber. The pilot of the aircraft, who survived, was shown on television soon afterwards.

Georgians are still in a state of shock and unsure why the conflict started. Most refuse to blame their president, Mikheil Saakashvili, for launching an offensive against the South Ossetian enclave on Thursday night, seemingly miscalculating that the Russian army would not intervene – or, if it did, that international pressure would force a quick ceasefire.

“He didn’t have a choice. He had to act as he did,” says Nina Rusadze, a press officer for the Georgian military.

Most back the Georgian government, saying their living standards have improved under Mr Saakashvili and that he deserves some credit for “making Georgia a normal country”.

The issue of Ossetian sovereignty is far from the thoughts of most Georgians, who do not seem to share the government’s preoccupation with it.

Mr Sakulachvili scratches his head and remembers fondly friendships with his Ossetian neighbours in Tskhinvali, but says things started to change after the fall of the Soviet Union and the brief civil war that the enclave fought to gain de facto independence from Georgia in 1991-92.

But even after that there was no hostility with his friends in Tskhinvali, he says. “The Ossetians have nothing to do with this,” he believes. “Its just the ­Russians.”

Ceasefire bid amid Georgia crisis

The BBC reports:

Russia and Georgia have accused each other of launching new attacks, as diplomats press for a ceasefire in the conflict over South Ossetia.

Georgia said dozens of Russian bombers attacked targets inside its territory, including around Tbilisi and Gori.

Russia said Georgian attacks on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali killed three of its troops.

Georgia's president backed a draft EU ceasefire proposal for a ceasefire, but Moscow reportedly rejected the plan.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, heading a delegation to the Georgian capital, told the BBC that President Mikhail Saakashvili signed a document outlining EU proposals for a ceasefire, controlled withdrawals of troops on both sides and eventual political talks.

The delegation would now go to Moscow, Mr Kouchner said, to convince President Dmitry Medvedev to back the plan.

But reports from Moscow suggested the Kremlin had quickly rejected the draft plan, saying Georgia was continuing to use military force.

The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, also spoke out, criticising the US for transporting Georgian troops from Iraq to redeploy to the conflict at home.

Earlier, Mr Medvedev accused Georgia of "genocide" in South Ossetia but said Russian troops were now in control of Tskhinvali and Moscow's military push was "largely complete".

The head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, accompanying Mr Kouchner, said he could not predict when the conflict would end, saying only that he was "optimistic" a cessation of violence could begin "in the next few days".

Targets hit

Fighting over South Ossetia erupted late last week when Georgia launched an overnight assault on the territory, which has had de facto independence since the end of a war in 1992.

Russia, which supports the breakaway province, hit back, bombing targets throughout Georgia.

The latest reports of violence came despite Georgia saying on Sunday that it would observe a ceasefire. Moscow has insisted Georgian forces withdraw fully from South Ossetia before it halts operations.

From Tbilisi, Georgia said up to 50 Russian fighter jets attacked targets inside Georgia overnight, with targets including a missile base and a radar station.

Georgia said the town of Gori, close to the South Ossetian border and used as a jumping-off point for Georgia's push into South Ossetia, also came under overnight attack.

Elsewhere in Georgia, tensions were rising in Abkhazia, another separatist region.

Reports said a Russian general issued an ultimatum to Georgian forces to pull out of Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge or Russia would send in its troops. Earlier, reports in Moscow said 9,000 Russian troops were being deployed to Abkhazia.

On Sunday, separatist leaders in Abkhazia announced a full mobilisation in order to drive Georgian troops from part of the region, and gave them a deadline to leave.

Georgia has accused Russia of landing 4,000 more troops in Abkhazia via the Black Sea. The separatists said Georgia had deployed a similar number of soldiers south of the Abkhaz border.

'Very firm'

Overnight, US President George W Bush was strongly critical of Russia's military strikes against Georgia.

Speaking in Beijing, US President Bush told NBC TV that he had spoken frankly to Mr Putin when the pair met at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games last week.

"I said this violence is unacceptable," Mr Bush said, adding: "I was very firm with Vladimir Putin. Hopefully this will get resolved peacefully."

However, in a telephone call to President Saakashvili, the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, said Russian aggression "must not go unanswered".

But White House officials refused to speculate on what America might do if the Russian military action continued.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has called on the parties to the conflict to grant safe passage to civilians trying to escape the war zone - estimated at up to 20,000 within Georgia, with some 30,000 fleeing into the Russian province of North Ossetia.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Georgia move fails to halt raids

The BBC reports:

Russia has continued air raids deep inside Georgia, after it rejected Tbilisi's announcement that it had called a ceasefire and wanted talks.

Jets bombed targets near Tbilisi, including the airport, and Russia said its warships had sunk a Georgian boat that approached and tried to attack.

Russia earlier took control of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, forcing Georgian troops to withdraw.

The US has accused Russia of seeking "regime change" in Georgia.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told the BBC his forces had observed a ceasefire since 0500 on Sunday morning, but had still been bombed by Russian planes. He said his government had been trying "all day" to contact Russia to discuss a ceasefire.

Peace mission

Russian jets were still carrying out bombing raids late on Sunday. Witnesses said jets had hit Tbilisi International Airport, as well as a military airfield close to the Georgian capital.

The airport was hit only a few hours before French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb arrived on a peace mission.

A Georgian official said earlier that Russian planes had bombed the western town of Zugdidi and Georgian-controlled territory inside Abkhazia. The claims could not be independently verified.

Later Russia's navy said it had sunk what it called a Georgian missile boat that had approached at high speed and tried to attack Russian warships in the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, there the US clashed with Russia at the United Nations Security Council, accusing it of seeking "regime change" in Georgia.

The US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, quoted Russia's foreign minister saying Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili "must go".

He asked his Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin: "Is the goal of the Russian Federation to change the leadership of Georgia?"

Mr Churkin did not directly answer the question, but said there were leaders who had "become an obstacle".

The council has met for four days running, but has failed to agree on the wording of a statement calling for a ceasefire.

But the US said it was preparing a draft resolution condemning Russia. Analysts said although Russia would veto such a statement, the US wanted to build backing for the motion to demonstrate international opinion.

Clashes in South Ossetia itself were reported to be less intense on Sunday, as Russian forces took control and Georgian troops drew back.

Local residents fleeing the area on Sunday morning told the BBC that Tskhinvali was relatively quiet.

Later, however, the BBC's Richard Galpin described a sense of panic on Sunday night in the Georgian town of Gori, near South Ossetia, amid fears that Russian troops were about to march on the town.

He had been warned by the interior ministry to leave Gori, only to find that the road to Tbilisi was crammed with cars full of fleeing civilians.

'Disproportionate force'

Georgia's announcement of its ceasefire came in a statement from the foreign ministry, stating that Georgia "today stopped firing in the South Ossetian conflict zone and is ready to begin talks with Russia on a ceasefire and cessation of hostilities".

It said a note had been passed to the Russian embassy in Georgia to that effect.

But a Russian foreign ministry official was quoted by Interfax saying "our information does not confirm the Georgian statement".

"There are indications that exchanges of fire are continuing and the Georgian forces have not been fully withdrawn from the conflict zone," he said.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on the parties to the conflict to grant safe passage for thousands of civilians trying to escape the war zone.

The UNHCR estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 people have been displaced within Georgia, including South Ossetia, while Russia has said that a further 30,000 people have fled north into the Russian province of North Ossetia.

"The conflict has caused civilian casualties and more are at risk," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.

"It is essential that humanitarian agencies be able to reach the affected and the displaced."

Meanwhile tensions were rising in Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia.

The leader of the separatist government there, Sergei Bagapsh, said he had ordered a military operation to clear Georgian forces out of Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge, and gave them a deadline to leave.

Georgia has accused Russia of landing 4,000 more troops in Abkhazia via the Black Sea. The separatists said Georgia had deployed a similar number of soldiers south of the Abkhaz border.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Russian jets attack Georgian town

From the BBC:

Russian jets have bombed a Georgian town amid a deepening crisis over the breakaway South Ossetia region.

Georgia says 60 people died in Gori when the bombs hit residential buildings as well as military targets.

Russian officials say hundreds of civilians have been killed in South Ossetia. Georgia denies the figure, which cannot be independently verified.

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

Reports differ over who controls South Ossetia's capital, with Moscow saying it has "liberated" Tskhinvali.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said his country was seeking "to force the Georgian side to peace".

Russia's ambassador to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin, said there could be no "consultations" with Georgia until Georgian forces returned to their positions and re-established "the status quo", Reuters news agency reported.

In another development, separatists in Abkhazia - Georgia's other breakaway region - said they had launched air and artillery strikes on Georgian forces in the Kodori Gorge.

The crisis began spiralling when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack on Thursday night 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 into South Ossetia.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has denounced Russian reports of a high civilian death toll from his forces as an "egregious lie".

Mr Saakashvili said he had decided to declare that Georgia was in a state of war because it was "under a state of total [Russian] military aggression".

Georgia is withdrawing its entire contingent of 2,000 troops from Iraq to help deal with the crisis.

US President George W Bush said the Russian attacks outside South Ossetia marked a "dangerous escalation in the crisis" and said Georgia's territorial integrity had to be respected.

"The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia," he said while attending the Olympics.

"The violence is endangering regional peace."

Tskhinvali 'destroyed'

Fighting continued around Tskhinvali overnight and into Saturday morning, although not at the same intensity as on Friday, Russian media reported.

Later, the Russian Army's Ground Forces commander, Gen Vladimir Boldyrev, said his troops had "fully liberated" the city and were pushing Georgian forces back.

But the secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, Khakha Lomaia, insisted that the city remained "under the complete control of our troops".

Russian commanders, who said reinforcements were being sent to the region, confirmed that two Russian jets had been shot down over Georgia.

Speaking to Russian news agency Interfax, Russia's ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, said on Saturday that 2,000 civilians and 13 Russian peacekeepers had been killed in Tskhinvali.

"The city of Tskhinvali no longer exists," he said. "It is gone. The Georgian military has destroyed it."

The International Red Cross (ICRC) said it had received reports that hospitals in the city were "overflowing" with casualties.

In Gori, Russian aircraft bombed mostly military targets, where Georgian troops had been massing to support their forces engaged in South Ossetia.

The BBC's Richard Galpin in Gori heard loud explosions and saw large plumes of smoke rising into the sky; soldiers and civilians were seen running through the streets.

Injured civilians were being pulled from the buildings, which were on fire.

The Georgian foreign ministry said the Black Sea port of Poti, the site of a major oil shipment facility, had been "devastated" by a Russian air raid.

Meanwhile Georgian TV reported that the Georgian-controlled section of the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia was under fire, blaming the bombardment on Russian forces.

The foreign minister in Abkhazia's self-declared government, Sergei Shamba, said Abkhaz forces had launched an attack aimed at driving Georgian forces out of the gorge.

It was not clear whether planes used in the attack on the gorge belonged to Russia or to the Abkhaz separatists.

Russia has a peacekeeping force in Abkhazia under an agreement made following civil wars in the 1990s, when the region declared independence and formed links with Moscow.

Territorial claims

President Medvedev said Russia's military aim in South Ossetia was to force the Georgians to stop fighting.

"Our peacekeepers and the units attached to them [ie, Ossetian separatists] are currently carrying out an operation to force the Georgian side to [agree to] peace," he said.

"They also bear the responsibility for protecting the population."

Speaking to the BBC, the Russian foreign minister insisted his country did not want all-out war with Georgia, but was prepared to do whatever was necessary to restore the situation in South Ossetia and to defend its civilian population, most of whom have been given Russian citizenship.

"Mr Saakashvili keeps saying that we want to chop off a part of Georgian territory," Mr Lavrov said.

"He's also saying that this is not just about Georgia, this is about the future of Europe because he says Russia is also making territorial claims to other [countries], including the Baltic states, which is rubbish."

Mr Lavrov said Georgia had violated a peace deal under which Georgia had agreed not to use force in the South Ossetian dispute.

The BBC's James Rodgers in Moscow says diplomatic initiatives to end the fighting have so far proved fruitless.

On Friday evening, the UN Security Council failed to agree on the wording of a statement calling for a ceasefire.

The UK, the US and France, are pinpointing what they say is Russia's aggression as the key factor in the slide towards war, while Moscow insists Georgia is to blame.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Russian Forces Battle Georgians

The BBC reports:

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 military official was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency, Interfax.

Georgian forces had moved on Thursday night to regain control of the province, which has had de facto independence since a war against Georgia that ended in 1992.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia was making war on his country.

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

He 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.

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.

Witnesses said the regional capital was devastated.

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 having trouble coping with the influx of casualties and ambulances were having trouble reaching the injured.

In other developments:

* Georgia's president said his country was calling home 1,000 troops from Iraq to help deal with the crisis
* Russia said it would cut all air links with Georgia from midnight on Friday
* The US voiced support for Georgia's territorial integrity after President George W Bush spoke with Russian PM Vladimir Putin about the conflict at the Beijing Olympics
* 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

Monday, July 21, 2008

Georgian Catholics cite 'growing hardship' from Orthodox pressure

WARSAW, Poland (CNS) -- A Catholic priest in Georgia has warned of growing hostility toward the Catholic Church. "There's no problem going to church and taking part in services. The hardship starts when a Catholic wants to function normally in social life," said Father Maciej Mamaj, a Polish priest in Georgia's northern Meskhetia region. "Non-Orthodox pupils and students feel stressed and discriminated against, while those who work are often pressured to become Orthodox and told they must if they want jobs," he told Poland's Catholic information agency, KAI, June 23. "A climate of hostility to Catholicism reigns in society, where the local nationalism supposes every Georgian should be Orthodox." The priest said young Georgians routinely were warned not to befriend Catholics or enter Catholic churches. He also said anti-Catholic remarks were common on radio and television.