Russia and Georgia were effectively at war last night after a festering conflict in the Caucasus plunged out of control following a Georgian military attempt to recover its breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Tanks and artillery from Russia's 58th army were in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital, to prevent Georgian forces attacking Russian peacekeepers and civilians, the defence ministry in Moscow said.
Russian soldiers in the capital said their artillery had fired at Georgian forces - the first confirmed engagement between the two countries' troops, and the two sides were last night engaged in heavy fighting.
"Our peacekeepers are waging a fierce battle with regular forces from the Georgian army in the southern region of Tskhinvali," a Russian military spokesman told Interfax.
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russian tanks were rumbling into South Ossetia and Georgian officials said Russian jets had bombed three military bases and the Black Sea port of Poti.
"One hundred and fifty Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles have entered South Ossetia. This is a clear intrusion. We have Russian tanks on our territory, jets on our territory in broad daylight," Saakashvili told a news conference. Tbilisi was planning to declare martial law, said Kakha Lomaia the secretary of Georgia's security council.
At the United Nations, Russian and Georgian envoys hurled accusations at each other, as a divided security council yesterday failed to agree on language calling for an end to the fighting, in a second emergency meeting in under 12 hours. The council finally broke off in a stalemate late last night, but plans to resume meeting this morning.
In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, claimed 1,400 civilians had been killed. There was no independent confirmation of his assertion, but witnesses said the city was devastated. Lyudmila Ostayeva, who had fled the city with her family, said: "I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. There is hardly a single building left undamaged."
There are fears of full-blown war in the region, which is a crucial energy transit route in which Russia and the west are vying for influence. President George Bush pledged US support for Georgia's territorial integrity and the US, EU and Nato called for an immediate ceasefire.
The Russian retaliation came swiftly after Georgian forces made an overnight assault on South Ossetia. The Russians were enraged that the Georgians had targeted their peacekeepers, killing more than 10 of them and injuring 30, according to the Russian defence ministry.
Saakashvili accused Russia of being the aggressor, but the assault seemed timed to coincide with today's launch of the Olympic games. "Most decision-makers have gone for the holidays," he told CNN. "Brilliant moment to attack a small country."
President Dmitry Medvedev chaired an emergency session of Russia's security council, after which he said: "My duty as Russian president is to safeguard the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they are ... We will not allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished. Those guilty will receive due punishment."
Many people in South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia, have Russian citizenship. In Beijing, the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, met Bush briefly and they agreed that nobody wanted war. But Putin said that "many Russian volunteers intended to go to South Ossetia and he said it was very difficult to maintain peace in the region", Interfax quoted the prime minister's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying.
In neighbouring North Ossetia, which is part of the Russian Federation, hundreds of volunteer fighters were mobilising and units of armed Cossacks were poised to join the battle for Tskhinvali.
- The Guardian,
- Saturday August 9 2008