Georgia pulls troops out of South Ossetia capital
Tony Halpin – Times Online August 10, 2008
Georgia pulled its troops out of the capital of South Ossetia this morning as 10,000 more Russian troops entered Georgia.
Georgia's Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili said the Georgian troops left Tskhinvali to provide a humanitarian corridor to evacuate those wounded from the capital. However, he said, Georgian troops remained in South Ossetia.
Shortly afterwards, a Georgian government statement said that the Russian troops had entered Georgia in two places.
Hours earlier, Russian warplanes pounded a military airfield near Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Georgian officials said that Russian warplanes had bombed a military airfield close to Tbilisi's international airport and just eight miles from the capital, hours after launching raids on other parts of the republic beyond the conflict zone in the separatist region of South Ossetia. Russia was accused of seeking the "annihilation of its former Soviet satellite".
There were also signs that Russia was preparing to open up a second front from Georgia's other breakaway region of Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast. Georgia accused Moscow of sending troops by sea to Abkhazia and a United Nations peacekeeping official warned that separatist fighters were preparing an imminent attack on Georgia.
Eastern European countries that formerly belonged to the Soviet bloc called on Nato to oppose Russia's "imperialist" policy towards Georgia. The leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland denounced Moscow's "aggression" and called on the European Union and Nato to "stand up" to Russia, which itself accused neighbouring Ukraine of arming and "encouraging" Georgia to attack South Ossetia.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also demanded a "very strong response" from the EU, and raised comparisons between Russian actions and those of Nazi Germany. He said: "No state has the right to intervene militarily in the territory of another state simply because there are individuals there with a passport issued by that state or who are nationals of the state.
"Attempts to apply such a doctrine have plunged Europe into war in the past... And we have reason to remember how Hitler used this very doctrine little more than half a century ago to undermine and attack substantial parts of central Europe."
Georgian and Russian troops faced each other in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, which both sides claimed to have under their command. Exchanges of artillery fire killed 20 and injured 150 people, according to a South Ossetian spokeswoman.
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili said on BBC television that Russia was pursuing a strategy aimed at "annihilation of a democracy on their borders". Georgia has declared a "state of war" and is recalling 2,000 troops from duty in Iraq to confront Russia in South Ossetia, but has also called for an immediate ceasfire.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's Prime Minister, defended the military campaign as he visited Vladikavkaz, close to the border with South Ossetia. He accused Georgia's "criminal" leadership of embarking on genocide against the people of Ossetia and said that Russia's actions were "absolutely well-founded and legitimate and moreover necessary".
In an ominous turn, Mr Putin warned that it was hard to imagine South Ossetia ever returning to Georgian control. Many in Tbilisi fear that Moscow is intent on re-writing the map of the Caucasus to incorporate South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Russia.
A joint delegation from the European Union and the United States was arriving in Tbilisi today to try to broker a ceasefire as international concern and condemnation mounted. The United Nations Security Council is expected to meet for a fourth time over the crisis later today as reports estimated that at least 2,000 people have died since fighting erupted early on Friday.
Russia refused to agree to a ceasefire at a Security Council meeting on Saturday, saying Georgia must withdraw from South Ossetia. Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said: "The fighting is still going on. The Georgian forces are continuing to be on the South Ossetian territory. All those actions and signals we have seen are not things which would not be conducive to a cease-fire."
Alejandro Wolff, the US Deputy Ambassador, flatly blamed Moscow for the escalation of the fighting. He said: "This is a conflict that is expanding and getting out of control. The proximate cause is the massive escalation perpetrated by outside forces."
Russian jets bombed the Georgian city of Gori, about 50 miles from Tbilisi, on Saturday, killing dozens of people, according to local officials. Georgia also claimed that two Russian battleships were en route to the Black Sea port of Poti, which they said had been "devastated" in a bombing raid by Russian jets on Saturday.
"The Government of Georgia is calling upon the world community to compel Russia to cease its hostilities and withdraw from Georgia immediately. This illegal invasion, which recalls the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, poses a serious risk to European stability and to the broader international security system," a spokesman said.
Alexander Lomaia, secretary of the national security council in Tbilisi, said that Russian ships had docked at the port of Ochamchira in Abkhazia. The separatist government in Abkhazia said that its troops had launched attacks on Georgia's military, prompting fears of a widening conflict across the Caucasus.
President Bush demanded "an end to the Russian bombing". The EU also issued a statement expressing "commitment to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Georgia" and urging Russia to respect Georgia's borders.
People in Tbilisi queued to give blood at clinics to assist the wounded. Many watched news reports on television nervously, but also expressed defiance against Russia. Nana Kobaladze, waiting at one clinic with her sister Maya, said: "We're praying for our soldiers, and we want to give blood in solidarity, that way we're giving them spiritual and physical help."
Russian troops and tanks rolled across the border on Friday after Georgian forces began an assault on South Ossetia, which wants to unite with neighbouring North Ossetia in Russia.
The conflict has brought back dark memories for Georgians of the chaos of the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Abkhazia and South Ossetia both broke away from Georgia in bloody wars and the conflicts have remained unresolved for 16 years.
Tensions have soared between Georgia and Russia since April, when Mr Putin sanctioned closer economic ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are not recognised internationally. Most people in the two regions have Russian passports.
Mr Saakashvili came to power pledging to reclaim both regions and has accused Moscow of seeking to annex the territories. The pro-Western government in Tbilisi is convinced that Moscow is using the conflict in a bid to wreck Georgia's bid for membership of Nato when the alliance meets in December.
Last updated 12/08/2008