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09 Aug 2008 07:54
Russia’s military said on Saturday it was sending reinforcements into South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia where Russian forces are supporting separatists under assault from Georgian troops.
The announcement by Moscow’s military upped the stakes in a stand-off between Russia and the pro-Western Georgian leadership that has sparked alarm in the West and led to angry exchanges at the United Nations reminiscent of the Cold War.
With Washington the main backer of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the United States State Department called in a top Russian diplomat to urge Moscow to halt military involvement in the conflict that erupted in earnest late on Thursday night.
In South Ossetia itself, Russian media reported shelling of the regional capital, Tskhinvali, over Friday night and said Georgian forces were responsible.
Each side blamed the other for the outbreak of fighting in the pro-Moscow enclave, which broke from Georgia as the Soviet Union neared collapse in the early 1990s.
Colonel Igor Konashenkov, an aide to the Russian infantry commander, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying units of the 58th army had arrived in Tskhinvali overnight to bolster troops acting as peacekeepers and would seek to “establish peace”.
Additional “special units” would arrive “in the next few hours”, he said.
Konashenkov said three members of the Russian peacekeeping units had been killed overnight, bringing total losses to 15.
The separatist rebels, who have enjoyed de facto independence from Georgia for more than 15 years, say they want to unite with North Ossetia which is part of Russia. They have won no international recognition for their break with Tbilisi.
Russia, which is angered by Saakashvili’s pro-Western policies and his drive to join the Nato military alliance, say they are acting to defend Russian citizens in South Ossetia.
Many of these have been granted Russian citizenship over the past 15 years.
Analysts say the violence has the potential to ignite wider fighting in the volatile Caucasus region.
Russian tanks moved through the region on Friday and television footage showed “katyusha” rockets being fired from the back of trucks.
Each side said it was in control of Tskhinvali, which clearly sustained heavy damage in the fighting.
But it was not clear who held the military advantage.
Saakashvili said the town, nearby heights and most villages were under Georgian control.
In Gori, a Georgian town outside the separatist region, hundreds of Georgian reservists lounged about in the main square on Saturday morning, awaiting official orders to proceed to South Ossetia.
The president of the separatist region, Eduard Kokoity, said 1 400 people had been killed. This figure could not be independently confirmed.
Moscow said its troops were responding to a Georgian assault to take back the region.
Russian television showed women, children and elderly residents crowding into a local bomb shelter and said water was in short supply and power cut off to most districts.
It showed busloads of refugees arriving in adjacent areas of Russia populated by ethnic Ossetians and queues of “volunteers” eager to get to South Ossetia to help their kin.
The United States earlier called for an immediate Russian pull-out.
The Russian Charge d’Affaires in Washington, Aleksander Darchiyev, was summoned to see Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who pressed Moscow to halt military action.
“The deputy secretary said that we deplore today’s Russian attacks by strategic bombers and missiles, which are threatening civilian lives,” State Department spokesperson Robert Wood said.
“These attacks mark a dangerous and disproportionate escalation of tension.”
Heated UN exchanges
For the second day running, the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on a resolution to end the fighting as Russian and Georgian envoys at the UN hurled accusations at each other.
In Tbilisi, the secretary of Georgia’s Security Council, Kakha Lomaia, said Saakhashvili would impose martial law within hours.
Russia, Lomaia said, had bombed facilities at the Black Sea port of Poti, an important oil loading site, and a military base in Senaki as part of what authorities believed was the start of attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure.
The Ossetia confrontation draws attention to a region hosting energy transit routes and gripped by competing interests in the West and Russia.
It was Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev’s first big diplomatic crisis since taking office in May. It sapped investor confidence and hit the Moscow stock exchange.
In Gori, the main square was teeming with reservists anxious to prove their mettle against the separatists. Some slept on the steps of a towering statute of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who was born there.
“I just arrrived,” said Sergo Nadiradze (20). “I’m waiting for the order to go to Tskhinvali.”
Political analysts saw Georgia’s bid to retake the region by force as a gamble to restore control over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region on the Black Sea.
But Saakashvili said on television: “What Russia is doing in Georgia is open, undisguised aggression and a challenge to the whole world.” - Reuters
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