Russia, Georgia clash in breakaway statelet
After weeks of escalating skirmishes with South Ossetia, Georgia moved to regain control of the enclave. Russia responded by sending in tanks.
MOSCOW; and Ergneti, Georgia
The diplomats may still be talking of peace, but from the front line deep inside the pro-Moscow breakaway republic of South Ossetia, a long-feared war between Russia and NATO-leaning Georgia appears to be under way.Skip to next paragraph
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At stake are Russia's already strained relations with the West, which backs Georgia, as well as Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili's hopes of leading his country into the NATO alliance within the next year. An extended conflict might also hit global energy prices, if a crucial pipeline that carries Caspian oil and gas through Georgia to Western markets should be threatened.
After weeks of escalating skirmishes along the frontier between Georgia and South Ossetia, Georgian forces launched a full-scale invasion on Friday. By nightfall, they claimed to have occupied the capital, Tskhinvali, and about 70 percent of the rebel republic's territory.
A Georgian military spokesman said the fighting would go on until "constitutional order" was restored, meaning Tbilisi's full control. South Ossetia's rebel president, Eduard Kokoity, was quoted by Russian state TV as saying that 1,400 civilians died Friday in the Georgian military offensive.
But hopes of a swift Georgian victory -- on a day when the world's attention was diverted by the opening of the Beijing Olympics -- disappeared when armored elements of the Russian 58th Army poured through the Roki Tunnel, which separates the Russian republic of North Ossetia from South Ossetia, and Russian fighter planes began pounding Georgian positions in and around the rebel republic.
"During the whole day, Russian jet planes have been continuously attacking Georgian towns," President Saakashvili told journalists in Tbilisi. "They have been continuously attacking the town of Gori, in the middle of Georgia, which has nothing to do with South Ossetia."
Both sides blamed the other for starting the conflict.
Moscow has long supported South Ossetia and another Georgian rebel statelet, Abkhazia, and maintains a contingent of peacekeeping troops in both. The two republics won de facto independence through bitter civil wars in the early 1990s, and have since lived in legal limbo, unrecognized by the world community, which supports Georgia's claim of sovereignty over the whole territory of Soviet-era Georgia.
But two key developments have pushed these formerly "frozen conflicts" into the spotlight in recent months. The West's backing for Kosovo's independence from Serbia earlier this year, over Russian objections, created what Moscow calls a precedent for other breakaway territories. And the US-backed push to expand NATO into the former Soviet Union, taking in Ukraine and Georgia, has met ferocious resistance in Moscow. For Russia, the existence of breakaway territories in Georgia is a prime argument, frequently repeated by Mr. Medvedev to Western leaders, against Georgia's admission to NATO.