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.
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"Russia cannot allow Georgia to solve the South Ossetia problem by military means," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an expert with the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Moscow. "Of course the deaths of Russian peacekeepers and the destruction caused by the invading Georgians is an important reason why Medvedev has ordered Russian forces to intervene in the conflict. But there are bigger strategic reasons behind that. Moscow cannot let Saakashvili succeed in his gamble."Skip to next paragraph
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Zurab Totalidze, a watchman near the Georgian city of Gori, says he witnessed an alleged Russian plane drop bombs on a telephone installation. "It happened so fast, I didn't have time to be scared," he says.
Information from the conflict zone was contradictory and sketchy, but Russian media were reporting Friday night that Georgia may have blinked in the conflict and begun pulling its forces out of Tskhinvali.
Western news agencies quoted a South Ossetian website as saying that Russian armored vehicles were inside Tskhinvali and the Georgian forces were starting to retreat.
Saakashvili called on the Georgian Army to mobilize up to 100,000 reservists, while the chief of Georgia's security council, Kakha Lomaia, said that Georgia plans to withdraw its 1,000 troops currently serving with the US-led coalition in Iraq to meet urgent national security needs at home.
"It is absolutely clear that this was a long-planned offensive by Georgia against South Ossetia, not a spontaneous action," says Ms. Zvigelskaya. "But the entry of Russian forces into the conflict is a worst nightmare scenario. Georgian leaders may have thought they could achieve a quick fait accompli, but now we are looking at the specter of a long conflict with much destruction and many victims."
State Department spokesman Gonzago Gallegos said Friday that Washington has sent its own representative to the region to press for an immediate cease-fire in the fast-escalating conflict. "We call on all sides, including Georgians, South Ossetians, and Russians, to bring tensions down to avoid [bringing about] a conflict," he said.
In an interview with the BBC Friday, Saakashvili accused Russia of provoking the conflict by massing its troops along the border for the past several months.
"They have been calling it training exercises, but they have not been concealing the fact that they are training these troops for use inside Georgia,: he said.
"The way the escalation went was, we came first under extensive artillery barrage from the separatists, but in the end, I was told that Russian armored vehicles started to cross the Georgian border," he said. "And that was exactly the moment when I had to take this decision to fire back."
Russia denies Saakashvili's version, and has accused Georgia of breaking nonviolence agreements made after South Ossetia won its war of independence against Georgia in 1992. President Dmitri Medvedev, emerging from a meeting of the Kremlin's secretive Security Council on Friday, said he was appalled by the reported deaths of 10 Russian peacekeeping soldiers and scores of South Ossetian civilians -- about 90 percent of whom hold Russian passports -- in the course of the day's fighting. "It is my duty as president of the Russian Federation to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they may be," Mr. Medvedev said.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, in an emotional speech, accused Georgia of committing atrocities against the ethnic Ossetians who inhabit the territory. "It was absolutely unacceptable to see residential quarters shelled, to see a humanitarian convoy that was trying to reach the people in need bombed from the air," he said. "Many villages, including those outside the zone of conflict, are being attacked by the Georgian troops using artillery and tanks".