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    Monday, August 11, 2008

    Reuters - Georgia appeals for help over Russia "invasion"

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    Georgia appeals for help over Russia "invasion"

    Monday, Aug 11, 2008 6:43PM UTC

    By Matt Robinson

    TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia appealed for international intervention on Monday and pulled its battered forces back to defend the capital, as Russian troops moved further into its territory, ignoring Western pleas to halt.

    "The Georgian army is retreating to defend the capital. The Government is urgently seeking international intervention to prevent the fall of Georgia," a Georgian statement said.

    Moscow snubbed a plea from the Group of Seven (G7) industrial powers for a ceasefire. It said Georgia had not kept a promise to halt fighting and was shelling the Russian-held region of South Ossetia where the conflict began last Thursday.

    A Reuters witness saw Georgian helicopter gunships bombing targets near the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, sending dark smoke billowing into the air. A second reporter heard heavy artillery bombardments on the road north of the wrecked town.

    The conflict has unsettled oil markets because Georgia hosts a key pipeline supplying the West. It has alarmed investors in Russia and has raised fears of a wider conflagration in the volatile region bordering Iran, Turkey and Russia.

    French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due to visit Georgia and Moscow on Tuesday for a round of diplomacy on behalf of the European Union, though it was unclear what could be achieved.

    Moscow appeared in no mood to compromise, opening a second front in the fighting by moving troops out of Abkhazia in the west and taking the Georgian town of Senaki, though Russian officials earlier said they did not intend to occupy territory beyond the two separatist areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

    A senior Georgian official later claimed that Russian troops had seized the Georgian town of Gori, some 40 km (25 miles) from South Ossetia. Moscow denied that report and a Reuters correspondent said no troops were visible in Gori's streets.

    The correspondent said a column of Georgian military trucks was visible on the highway moving out of Gori eastwards towards the capital Tbilisi.

    The simmering conflict erupted last Thursday when Georgia suddenly sent forces to retake South Ossetia, which threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s and declared itself independent, albeit without international recognition.

    Moscow responded with a counter-attack by its vastly bigger forces that drove Georgian troops out of the devastated South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Sunday. Russia says 1,600 people have been killed in the fighting and thousands more are homeless but these figures are not independently verifiable.

    Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said he had agreed to a plan proposed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Monday under which hostilities would end, a mixed peacekeeping force would be deployed and troops would return to pre-conflict positions.

    Women and children wept in the streets of Tskhinvali on Monday as they surveyed the destruction amid continued Georgian shelling. Russian troops distributed water and food from trucks.

    One elderly resident told Reuters how she sheltered in a cellar with her 7-year-old grandson during the bombardment.

    "My grandson screamed: 'Uncle Putin please help us, help us so that the Georgians don't kill me !'. They were screaming and crying it was terrible, a nightmare," she said.

    "Thank God the Russians have come. It is getting better."


    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has taken a leading role in the crisis, attacked the United States for helping Georgia fly home troops from Iraq and said the West was mistaking the aggressors for victims in the conflict -- a reference to strong Western support for Georgia.

    Putin mocked the support given by the West to Saakashvili, comparing him to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who was hanged in 2006 for executing Shiites.

    "They (the Americans) of course had to hang Saddam Hussein for destroying several Shiite villages," Putin said.

    "But the current Georgian rulers who in one hour simply wiped 10 Ossetian villages from the face of the earth, the Georgian rulers which used tanks to run over children and the elderly, which threw civilians into cellars and burnt them -- they (Georgian leaders) are players that have to be protected."

    Russia said at a daily military briefing that it had lost four military aircraft and 18 soldiers since the fighting started, with another 14 missing in action and 52 wounded.

    Russian financial markets slid to their lowest levels in two years early Monday as investors panicked over the conflict.

    Russian stocks later reversed some of their losses on suggestions by President Dmitry Medvedev that the war may be nearing an end and the benchmark RTS index closed at 1,743 points at 1450 GMT, up 1.2 percent on the day.

    Oil prices rose again on Monday after a recent retreat from record levels, with crude topping $116 a barrel.

    A Georgian government source said on Sunday 130 Georgian civilians and military personnel had been killed and 1,165 wounded, many because of Russian bombing inside Georgia. Russia denies hitting civilian targets.

    For special coverage see

    CNN - Russian military pushes into Georgia

    Sent from's mobile device from

    Russian military pushes into Georgia

    The Russian military advanced into Georgia on two fronts Monday, entering cities outside the breakaway provinces that have been the centers of fighting.

    From the flashpoint South Ossetia, the Russian military moved south into the central Georgia city of Gori. Russian troops were also in Senaki, in western Georgia, having advanced from Abkhazia, Russian and Georgian officials said.

    A CNN crew in Gori saw Georgian forces piling into trucks and leaving the city at high speed.

    The streets of Gori were nearly empty Monday. Over the weekend the city came under repeated aerial attack from the Russian military.

    Russia's Interfax news agency cited an official with the Russian Defense Ministry saying troops were in Senaki to "prevent attacks by Georgian military units against South Ossetia." Senaki is home to a Georgian military base.

    Georgia's interior ministry said Russia had also seized control of Zugdidi -- a city on the route between Abkhazia and Senaki.

    Georgia launched a crackdown Thursday against separatist fighters in South Ossetia. Russia, which supports the separatists and has peacekeepers in the region, sent its military into South Ossetia on Friday.

    The Georgian government said it was recalling the army to Tbilisi "to defend the capital."

    Russia has not threatened to enter Tbilisi and says its operations are peacekeeping but Georgia fears it's an invasion.

    Monday's military developments came as Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili said he had signed an internationally-brokered cease-fire proposal that will be taken next to Moscow.

    Saakashvili said the cease-fire proposal would be taken to Moscow by the French Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb.

    They were to make their way to Moscow on Monday evening after meeting with Georgian officials.

    A Georgian National Security Council official said the document signed by Saakashvili called for an unconditional cease-fire, a non-use of force agreement, a withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, including the South Ossetia region, and provisions for international peacekeeping and mediation.

    Saakashvili said: "We are trying to stop this as soon as possible."

    "We are in the process of invasion, occupation, and annihilation of an independent, democratic country," he said.

    Saakashvili abruptly ended his conference call with reporters Monday saying: "We have to go to the shelter because there are Russian planes flying over the presidential palace here, sorry."

    Video showed a chaotic scene outside the palace, with the president being rushed away under heavy security.

    Saakashvili later accused Russia of ethnic cleansing -- a charge the Russians have repeatedly leveled at Georgia, and which both sides deny.

    He said Georgian troops had downed "18 or 19" Russian warplanes, killed hundreds of Russian troops and repelled a Russian assault on the Georgian city of Gori, in Georgia near South Ossetia.

    Saakashvili claimed Russia had 500 tanks and 25,000 troops inside Georgia. A Russian defense ministry said only four planes had been lost.

    Russia insists it has no interest in interfering with Georgia's affairs but wants to protect its peacekeepers and the residents of South Ossetia

    Russian Defense Ministry Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Georgian troops in South Ossetia but were being driven out.

    "At the moment, our troops are pushing out, capturing and disarming groups of Georgian law enforcement agencies which have been surrounded in the capital of South Ossetia," Nogovitsyn said.

    "This is a matter of principle," he said. "The 1992 treaty which Georgia signed, among others, clearly defines the limits of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, and is doesn't have any tasks of invading the Georgian territory."

    Russia controls the sky

    The skies over the breakaway regions and Georgia belonged to the Russians, he said, as the Georgian air force was not flying.

    They had "inflicted damage on operational systems, troops and military facilities of Georgia," but Nogovitsyn denied Russian bombers had attacked a civilian radar installation at the Tbilisi International Airport.

    A U.S. military official told CNN that Russian attacks on Georgia -- including radars and communication systems -- have devastated the country's command and control system to the point where Georgian leaders may not have a clear idea of the situation on the ground.

    A Georgian Foreign Ministry statement said "several dozen Russian bombers" were over Georgia Monday afternoon "intensively bombing Tbilisi, Poti, villages in Adjara, and elsewhere."

    "Overnight, as many as 50 Russian bombers were reported operating simultaneously over Georgia, targeting civilian populations in cities and villages, as well as radio and telecommunications sites," the statement said.

    Colonel-General Nogovitsyn repeated an earlier charge that Georgian troops were engaged in genocide against civilians in South Ossetia, which he said he could "prove to the media."

    "During their mop-up operations in South Ossetia, Georgian commandos have thrown hand grenades into the basements where civilians were hiding," he said. "That's what we call genocide."

    South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, lay in smoldering ruins after four days of fighting. Each side accused the other of killing large numbers of civilians. Russia said at least 2,000 people had been killed in Tskhinvali.

    Georgia began withdrawing its forces from Tskhinvali early Sunday.

    Georgia, a pro-Western ally of the U.S., is intent on asserting its authority over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have strong Russian-backed separatist movements.

    The situation in South Ossetia escalated rapidly from Thursday night, when Georgia said it launched an operation into the region after artillery fire from separatists killed 10 people. It accused Russia of backing the separatists.

    South Ossetia, which has a population of about 70,000, is inside Georgia but has an autonomous government. Many South Ossetians support unification with North Ossetia, which would make them part of Russia.

    Russia supports the South Ossetian government, has given passports to many in South Ossetia, and calls them Russian citizens.

    CNN - Georgian president: Moscow picked fight

    Sent from's mobile device from

    Georgian president: Moscow picked fight

    Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili argues in an op-ed column in Monday's Wall Street Journal that Russia picked the fight with Georgia in South Ossetia to crush Georgia's pro-Western democracy.

    "The Kremlin designed this war," Saakashvili writes.

    He also argues that the conflict is about "the future of freedom in Europe."

    If Russia succeeds, Saakashvili says, it would mark the end of Western influence on any of the former Soviet republics.

    "It is clear that Russia's current leadership is bent on restoring a neocolonial form of control over the entire space once governed by Moscow," he writes.

    Western leaders have responded to Saakashvili's pleas for help by putting diplomatic pressure on Russia, but that has so far failed to win a cease-fire.

    Russian officials insist their continuing attacks against Georgia, which included airstrikes that have hit civilian residences in Georgian cities, are aimed at protecting South Ossetians from Georgia's military.

    Saakashvili himself had to run for cover Monday during a visit to the town of Gori, where scores of people were killed in a Russian attack Saturday. The Associated Press reported that a member of his security team shouted "cover him!" as the Georgian president spoke to reporters next to his SUV.

    Saakashvili was torn away by bodyguards and pushed to the ground. They piled extra flak jackets on top of him. Fearing an air raid, onlookers fled, looking skyward and screaming. No jets were seen or heard.

    Meanwhile, Saakashvili said last week's escalation of hostilities followed months of Russian provocations, first in the Georgian breakaway province of Abkhazia.

    "When this failed, the Kremlin turned its attention to South Ossetia, ordering its proxies there to escalate attacks on Georgian positions," he says in the Wall Street Journal column. "My government answered with a unilateral cease-fire; the separatists began attacking civilians and Russian tanks pierced the Georgian border. We had no choice but to protect our civilians and restore our constitutional order."

    The long-running separatist disputes, however, are just a pretext for Russia's aggression, he argues.

    "Yet in reality, it is a war about the independence and the future of Georgia," he writes. "And above all, it is a war over the kind of Europe our children will live in. Let us be frank: This conflict is about the future of freedom in Europe."

    Saakashvili argues that Georgia was targeted because "no country of the former Soviet Union has made more progress toward consolidating democracy, eradicating corruption and building an independent foreign policy than Georgia.

    "This is precisely what Russia seeks to crush."

    Georgia, he says, has "worked hard to peacefully bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the Georgian fold, on terms that would fully protect the rights and interests of the residents of these territories."

    Those efforts have been undermined by Russia's annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, treating the Georgian regions as Russian provinces, his column says.

    "While we appealed to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with our vision of a common future, Moscow increasingly took control of the separatist regimes," he writes. "The Kremlin even appointed Russian security officers to arm and administer the self-styled separatist governments."

    At stake, he argues, is much more than Georgia's future.

    "If Georgia falls, this will also mean the fall of the West in the entire former Soviet Union and beyond," he writes. "Leaders in neighboring states -- whether in Ukraine, in other Caucasian states or in Central Asia -- will have to consider whether the price of freedom and independence is indeed too high."

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