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.”

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