‘Hundreds dead’ as Russia enters Georgia conflict

The Russian Federation sent forces into Georgia on Friday to repel a Georgian assault on the breakaway South Ossetia region, and Georgia’s pro-Western president said the two countries were at war.

South Ossetia’s rebel leader Eduard Kokoity said there were ”hundreds of dead civilians” in the main town, Tskhinvali, Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

A senior Russian military commander said parts of Russia’s 58th army were approaching the rebel capital, where fighting raged between Russian-backed separatists and Georgian forces sent in on Friday to seize it.

A senior Georgian security official said Russian jets had bombed the Vaziani military air base outside the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and President Mikheil Saakashvili said 150 Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles had entered South Ossetia from neighbouring Russia.

”Russia is fighting a war with us in our own territory,” Saakashvili told CNN, calling on Washington to help.

He also said Georgian forces had downed two Russian jets. There was no immediate confirmation Russia had sent bombers.

A top Russian military commander said more than 10 Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia had been killed and nearly 30 wounded, Russian news agencies reported.

The roar of warplanes and the explosions of heavy shells were deafening more than 3km away from Tskhinvali. Many houses were ablaze.

US President George Bush discussed the situation with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Beijing, where world leaders were attending the opening of the Olympic Games, the White House said, giving no further information.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Georgians of driving people from their homes. ”We are receiving reports that a policy of ethnic cleansing was being conducted in villages in South Ossetia, the number of refugees is climbing, the panic is growing, people are trying to save their lives,” he said during televised remarks from the ministry.

Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of Russian peacekeepers in the territory, earlier told Interfax by telephone from Tskhinvali: ”As a result of many hours of shelling from heavy guns, the town is practically destroyed.”

The crisis, the first to confront Russian President Dmitry Medvedev since he took office in May, looked close to spiralling into full-blown war in a region emerging as a key energy transit route, and where Russia and the West are vying for influence.

Saakashvili told reporters: ”This is a clear intrusion on another country’s territory. We have Russian tanks on our territory, jets on our territory in broad daylight.” He ordered a full-scale mobilisation of military reservists.

The conflict dented sentiment on Russia’s benchmark equity index, which fell more than 4% to a 14-month low, while the rouble lost more than 1% against a basket of €0,45 and $0,55.

Nato, the European Union and the US, a vocal Georgian ally, all urged a halt to the bloodshed.

Andrei Chistyakov, a correspondent for Russia’s Vesti-24 television station, said at least 15 civilians had been killed in Tskhinvali, where thousands of people took refuge in cellars. ”These are the people whose bodies were seen in their yards and in the streets,” he said by telephone.

Medvedev vowed to defend Russian ”compatriots” in South Ossetia, whose separatist administration is supported by Russia, and where most people have been given Russian passports. ”We will not allow their deaths to go unpunished,” Interfax quoted him as saying.

Georgia said its operation, launched after a week of clashes between separatists and Georgian troops in which nearly 20 people were killed, was aimed at ending South Ossetia’s effective independence, won in a 1991-1992 war.

The majority of the roughly 70 000 people living in South Ossetia are ethnically distinct from Georgians. They say they were forcibly absorbed into Georgia under Soviet rule and now want to exercise their right to self-determination.

Leaders at Olympics
Putin said Georgia had used heavy armour and artillery and attacked Russian peacekeepers. ”This is very sad and this will incur a response,” he said in Beijing.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili said government forces had also fought mercenaries who had entered South Ossetia from Russia.

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said the operation would continue until a ”durable peace” had been reached.

The Kremlin said Medvedev had summoned his top security advisers to discuss how to restore peace and defend civilians ”within the peacekeeping mandate we have”.

At an emergency session of the UN on Thursday night, Russia failed to push through a statement that would have called on both sides to stop fighting immediately.

Saakashvili, who wants to take his small Caucasus nation into Nato, has made it a priority to win back control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebel region on the Black Sea.

The issue has bedevilled Georgia’s relations with Russia, which is angered by Tbilisi’s moves towards the Western fold and its pursuit of Nato membership. — Reuters

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