Russians Push Past Separatist Area

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Richard Moore

Aug 11, 2008, 4:40:03 AM8/11/08
Two senior Western officials said that it was unclear whether Russia intended a full invasion of Georgia, but that its aims could go as far as destroying its armed forces or overthrowing Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Now that the Axis has roused the Bear from its cave, it would make perfect sense for the Bear to take that opportunity to clear the nest of vipers the US has installed in Georgia.


August 11, 2008

Russians Push Past Separatist Area to Assault Central Georgia


This article was reported by Andrew E. Kramer, Anne Barnard and C. J. Chivers, and written by Ms. Barnard.

TBILISI, Georgia — Russia expanded its attacks on Georgia on Sunday, moving tanks and troops through the separatist enclave of South Ossetia and advancing toward the city of Gori in central Georgia, in its first direct assault on a Georgian city with ground forces during three days of heavy fighting, Georgian officials said.

The maneuver — along with bombing of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi — seemed to suggest that Russia’s aims in the conflict had gone beyond securing the pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to weakening the armed forces of Georgia, a former Soviet republic and an ally of the United States whose Western leanings have long irritated the Kremlin.

Russia’s moves, which came after Georgia offered a cease-fire and said it had pulled its troops out of South Ossetia, caused widespread international alarm and anger and set the stage for an intense diplomatic confrontation with the United States.

Two senior Western officials said that it was unclear whether Russia intended a full invasion of Georgia, but that its aims could go as far as destroying its armed forces or overthrowing Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

“They seem to have gone beyond the logical stopping point,” one senior Western diplomat said, speaking anonymously under normal diplomatic protocol.

The escalation of fighting raised tensions between Russia and its former cold war foes to their highest level in decades. President Bush has promoted Georgia as a bastion of democracy, helped strengthen its military and urged that NATO admit the country to membership. Georgia serves as a major conduit for oil flowing from Russia and Central Asia to the West.

But Russia, emboldened by windfall profits from oil exports, is showing a resolve to reassert its dominance in a region it has always considered its “near abroad.”

The military action, which has involved air, naval and missile attacks, is the largest engagement by Russian forces outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia escalated its assault on Sunday despite strong diplomatic warnings from Mr. Bush and European leaders, underscoring the limits of Western influence over Russia at a time when the rest of Europe depends heavily on Russia for natural gas and the United States needs Moscow’s cooperation if it hopes to curtail what it believes is a nuclear weapons threat from Iran.

President Bush, in Beijing for the Olympics, strongly criticized the Russian attacks, especially those outside South Ossetia, and urged an immediate cease-fire.

In an interview on NBC on Monday morning, he said he had been “very firm” with both Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, and its president, Dmitri Medvedev.

Earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney expressed a strong warning for Russia. In a telephone conversation with the Georgian president, he said “that Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community,” a spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, said in a statement released by the White House.

Russian officials say Georgia provoked the assault by attacking South Ossetia last week, causing heavy civilian casualties. But Western diplomats and military officials said they worried that Russia’s decision to extend the fighting and open a second front in Abkhazia indicated that it had sought to use a relatively low-level conflict in a conflict-prone part of the Caucasus region to extend its influence over a much broader area.

On Sunday, Russian artillery shells slammed the city of Gori, a major military installation and transportation hub in Georgia. In the separatist region of Abkhazia, Russian paratroopers and their Abkhaz allies battled Georgian special forces and tried to cross the boundary into undisputed Georgian territory, Georgian officials said.

Russia dropped a bomb on Tbilisi’s international airport shortly before Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France, who was sent by the European Union to try to mediate, was due to land, Georgian officials said. It twice bombed an aviation factory on the outskirts of the capital. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet patrolled the coast of Abkhazia, and its Defense Ministry said Russian warships had sunk a Georgian gunboat that fired on them.

The Kremlin declined to say whether its troops had entered Georgia proper but said all its actions were intended to strike at Georgian military forces that had fired on its peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia.

A senior Russian defense official, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said early Sunday that Russia did not intend to “break into” Georgian territory.

The Bush administration said it would seek a resolution from the United Nations Security Council condemning Russian military actions in Georgia.

In a heated exchange with his Russian counterpart at the United Nations, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad of the United States accused the Kremlin of seeking to oust President Saakashvili.

He charged that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, had said as much Sunday morning in a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, telling her “that the democratically elected president of Georgia ‘must go,’ ” Mr. Khalilzad said. Mr. Khalilzad said the comment was “completely unacceptable.”

In Washington, American officials said that Georgian troops had tried to disengage but that the Russians had not allowed them to.

“The Georgians told them, ‘We’re done. Let us withdraw,’ ” one American military official said. “But the Russians are not letting them withdraw. They are pursuing them, and people are seeing this.”

The official was not authorized to brief the press and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official added: “This is not about military objectives. This is about a political objective: removing a thorn in their side.”

Tensions with Mr. Saakashvili escalated when he made a centerpiece of his presidency the reunification of Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, pro-Russian regions that won de facto autonomy in fighting in the early 1990s.

Russia has issued passports to many residents in the territories and has stationed peacekeeping troops in them. Heavy fighting broke out last week in South Ossetia when Georgian troops tried to take its capital in what seems to have been a major miscalculation.

Reports of the death toll varied widely, from the low hundreds to more than 2,000, but none could be independently verified.

Russian officials say more than 30,000 South Ossetians have fled into Russia.

Russia says it is acting to protect residents there and to punish Georgia for the assault, which Georgia says was to protect Georgian enclaves in the territory from attack and to push out illegally deployed Russian troops.

Russian officials told Russian news agencies late Sunday night that Georgian troops were attacking Tskhinvali.

There were no independent observers with either country’s forces, and verifying claims about military activity was not immediately possible.

Georgian officials expressed alarm on Sunday that Russia might be aiming to take Gori, about a 45-minute drive south from Tskhinvali. Gori, a major staging area for the Georgian military, sits in a valley that is the main route connecting the east and west halves of Georgia.

Shota Utiashvili, an official in the Georgian Interior Ministry, said the Russians had moved tanks and troops to within a few kilometers of Gori and were “trying to cut the country in half.”

Mr. Utiashvili said that if they tried to occupy Georgia, “there will probably be guerrilla warfare all over the country.”

He said: “We need large supplies of humanitarian aid, because we have thousands of wounded. And weapons. We need weapons.”

Sunday evening, artillery and tank fire could be heard from the outskirts of Gori. During a pause in the fighting, Georgian military personnel appeared to be flowing into the city. Georgian officials said they would defend it.

Ambulances with flashing red and blue lights roared back and forth on the highway between Gori and Tbilisi, along with troop transports. Families fled Gori in cars and donkey carts.

“The whole family is running away. There is nowhere for us to take shelter,” said Ketevan Sunabali, 40, who had left home in a pair of red Winnie the Pooh slippers. She said she had heard the bombs exploding and seen the smoke and just jumped in the car with her husband, without stopping to take any of their belongings.

“I had a home. I had a father,” said Gogita Kazahashvili, 29. “My father died today from the bombing. I’ve seen with my own eyes. My house was destroyed. I buried my father myself, by where the house was.”

A man who said he was fleeing from Kakhvi, which he described as a Georgian-controlled enclave squeezed between parts of South Ossetia along the winding border, said Russian soldiers had come to his house, and he had run away. Along the road, others who were displaced carried their possessions in wheelbarrows and plastic bags.

A reporter for The New York Times saw artillery being fired from Russian-controlled areas into Georgian territory near the villages of Eredvy and Prisi, about two miles from Tskhinvali. Grassy fields were burning in the villages and clouds of dust rose with the impact of the shells.

Even one close Russian ally, Maksim K. Gvindzhiya, expressed alarm about the possibility of Russian troops moving on Gori and clashing with Georgians on unchallenged Georgian territory.

“If it happened, then it’s a big mess, it’s a big problem, because it is direct confrontation,” said Mr. Gvindzhiya, deputy foreign affairs minister for the de facto government of Abkhazia. “It’s going out of the conflict zone.”

Fighting escalated in Abkhazia as well, Mr. Gvindzhiya and Georgian officials said.

Russia doubled the number of its troops in Abkhazia to about 6,000 early Sunday, landing paratroopers at an airport near the Black Sea. There was heavy fighting in the Kodori Gorge, the only area in Abkhazia that Georgia controls, with Russian paratroopers ferried in by helicopter.

In Washington, Secretary Rice worked through the night Saturday with other Bush administration officials on a Security Council resolution. American diplomats said that they did not want an actual Security Council vote on the resolution until Tuesday or so, the better to draw out the debate and publicly shame the Russian government. While the resolution will carry no punitive weight, and is almost sure to be vetoed by Russia, a permanent Council member, the hope is that it could create more pressure for a cease-fire, officials said.

Meanwhile, Georgian and Western diplomatic officials said Georgia had offered a cease-fire proposal to Russia, though Russian officials did not acknowledge receiving such an offer.

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Tbilisi, and Anne Barnard from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz and Nicholas Kulish from Tbilisi, Helene Cooper from Washington, and Joseph Sywenkiy from Gori, Georgia.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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