Georgia Conflict: Roar of War as Jets fill the Air
Adrian Blomfield in Gori – Telegraph.co.uk August 8, 2008
A roar filled the air. Suddenly, from the horizon, two Russian war jets homed into view, their wingtips tilted towards the scrubland of northern Georgia as they screamed through the skies.
"Take cover, it's another wave," the Georgian commander shouted.
His men, a company of soldiers deployed on a lonely stretch of road close to Tskhinvali, the rebel capital of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, flung themselves to the ground and rolled into the thick thorn bushes that stretched towards the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
Anti-aircraft guns opened fire in staccato bursts before the ground started to rumble as the jets discharged their payloads. From both sides of the road, the soldiers began to fire their Kalashnikovs, a futile and desperate gesture against the might of the Russian Air Force.
"Russians!" yelled a young soldier, his grimy face streaked with sweat, as he jabbed a finger towards the retreating jets. "Russians," he told me again, more softly this time, as though scarcely able to believe that his tiny country was effectively at war with its giant ex-Soviet neighbour.
Gradually, the firing began to stop. Soldiers, chests heaving with exertion and adrenaline, rolled onto their backs and began to smoke.
Earlier in the day, Georgian troops scattered along the frontline seemed convinced that victory was within their grasp.
After an order was given to launch a full-scale assault on South Ossetia's Moscow-backed separatists in the early hours of the morning, Georgian forces appeared to make easy progress.
This, after all, was not the ragtag army that was forced to retreat in humiliation by Ossetian irregulars in 1992, but the well-equipped military force trained by the United States and blooded in Iraq.
Ranged against them was a small but determined rebel force, funded and armed by their Russian allies but still heavily outnumbered, driven by conviction that their sliver of territory, only one and a half times the size of Luxembourg, would never be part of Georgia.
With heavy artillery and Grad rockets, Georgian forces pounded Tskhinvali through the hours of darkness before ground troops entered the town and engaged in intense hand-to-hand fighting.
By dawn, Georgia controlled much of the town and had severed communications between the rebels and the outside world. By word of mouth, the South Ossetian military command relayed the message that over 1,000 people had been killed in the onslaught. It was an allegation that, in a region prone to hyperbole and claims of genocide, was impossible to verify. Russia also claimed that ten of its soldiers, ostensibly stationed in South Ossetia as peacekeepers, had also been killed.
But as the day wore on it became apparent that Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's gamble of Russian non-intervention had backfired. Retaliating swiftly, Russia commenced a combined aerial and land assault on Georgian forces, launching Moscow's first foreign military intervention since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Suddenly two European nations, one a key ally of the United States and Nato aspirant, were in a state of war.
Russian fighter jets bombed Gori, hometown of Stalin and the closest Georgian settlement to the frontier, sending plumes of smoke into the air. Later in the day, the Russians widened their assault not just in the frontline region but also close to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where a military base two miles from the airport also came under attack. The Russian army had recently been evicted from the base by Georgia's pro-western government and this was Russia's revenge.
"It's not South Ossetia we are at war with, it's Russia," the company's commander said, shaking his head at the magnitude of his statement.
From Vladikavkaz, the capital of adjoining North Ossetia, which lies in Russia, phalanxes of Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers rumbled towards Tskhinvali to provide ground support.
Deeply angry with Georgia's pro-western policies since the Rose Revolution of 2003, Moscow's fury has grown as its neighbour made a concerted push towards Nato membership. This was an explosive message of intent that Georgia, long decried in Moscow as a terrorist state, would be punished - even flattened if need be.
As the Russian soldiers advanced, the gunfire and shelling in Tskhinvali once again intensified and it became apparent that the Georgians were in retreat.
By nightfall, as artillery fire continued to echo through the hills, South Ossetian forces boasted that they had retaken most of the towns, a claim that again could not be verified although Georgian officials conceded that they had lost some territory.
In Georgian towns near the frontline, civilians huddled in small groups, their eyes nervously scanning the skies. Only the most resilient had stayed, their numbers boosted by bus drivers who had ferried reservists, called up two days ago, to the conflict zone.
Ambulances, their sirens wailing, sped along the streets, discharging wounded soldiers at the military hospital in Gori, a leafy town set beneath an ancient hill fortress.
Exhausted soldiers, talking in low voices or staring blankly into space, propped up walls in the town. An atmosphere of tension and expectation hung heavily in the air.
"The fighting has been hard and it will get harder yet," one young corporal said. "We will win though, just like David slew Goliath."
The same resigned determination seems to have settled over the town's inhabitants.
"We want peace," said Nino Zuabashvili, a shopkeeper. "But we are fed up with being bullied by Russia. What is Georgia's is Georgia's and every one of us is prepared to die to protect our sovereignty."
Last updated 10/08/2008