/ 12 September 2008

Medvedev likens Georgia attack to 9/11

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev likened Georgian military action to the September 11 attacks on the United States on Friday, while Tbilisi said there was still no sign of an end to Russian occupation.

The war started when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili launched a massive assault on August 7 to regain control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia from Moscow-backed separatists.

“Almost immediately after these events, it occurred to me that for Russia, August 8 2008 was almost like September 11 2001 in the United States,” Medvedev told a high-profile group of Western foreign policy experts in Moscow.

Russia responded on that date and routed the US-trained Georgian army in a matter of days in a conflict estimated to have killed hundreds of people on both sides. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes.

Moscow said it was defending tens of thousands of Ossetians granted Russian citizenship since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Georgia accuses Russia of effectively annexing South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia.

“There were many useful lessons from 9/11 in the United States. I would like the world to draw its own lessons from what happened” in August, the Russian leader said, adding: “The world changed.”

His comments came exactly a month after a European Union-brokered truce brought an end to the war and hopes of a Russian withdrawal.

Georgian officials said they had yet to see Moscow act on its pull-out promises and Russian troops continued to hold key points in Georgia on Friday.

There were no signs of Russian troops moving from some of their bases near the oil terminal of Poti, the Georgian airbase at Senaki and the Inguri hydroelectric dam, which produces nearly half of Georgia’s power supply.

“It’s a dead zone here. The children are afraid. They stay at home because sometimes there’s shooting at night,” said a Georgian refugee in the village of Chale, near a Russian base that soldiers said contained about 60 troops.

At other bases in western Georgia, soldiers appeared to be packing up to leave, but Georgian Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili cast doubt on the preparations, saying: “There has been no sign of a withdrawal.

“They are making preparations, we can see that, but in terms of reducing the number of personnel, it’s still the same as it was. Since last week they have been saying they are going to leave in a couple of days.”

Ceasefire observers
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, ruled out any discussion of Moscow’s recognition of independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia at international talks on October 15 in Geneva.

Medvedev and Russia’s powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, have made a series of statements in recent days blasting Georgian aggression and accusing the West of backing Tbilisi and manipulating events.

The West, particularly the US, is furious that Moscow went on to recognise the two breakaways as independent states and then establish diplomatic relations and promise military bases.

Washington argues Russia’s decision to base 7 600 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia on a long-term basis violates the ceasefire, which called for all troops to return to their pre-conflict positions.

Medvedev has agreed to pull out all troops from buffer zones surrounding the regions within 10 days of the deployment of EU ceasefire observers, scheduled to take place by October 1 at the latest.

The European Union wants the monitors to be allowed into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but Russia has ruled this out.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has said he is considering sending a fact-finding mission to Georgia and is willing to facilitate international talks on the two regions.

In the US, Republican vice presidential pick Sarah Palin hinted that a Republican president would take a tough line over Georgia.

“For Russia to have exerted such pressure in terms of invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked, is unacceptable,” Palin said. — AFP