Georgian Forces Launch South Ossetia Offensive

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A battle has begun on the border between the Republic of Georgia and Russia. Georgian forces backed by warplanes have launched a full-scale internal offensive in the region of South Ossetia. They're fighting with Russian-backed separatists over control of the breakaway region. Madeleine Brand talks with Lawrence Sheets about the fighting.


American officials are scrambling to try to prevent war between Russia and neighboring Georgia. We've got more on this story now. Russian troops are in a part of Georgia that is trying for its own independence. It's called South Ossetia. Georgia says Russia is bombing Georgian military bases, and dozens of people are reportedly already dead in the conflict.


Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, speaking on CNN today, appealed to the West to stop what he called Russian aggression.

(Soundbite of speech)

President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): We are freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack. And we've always been warned. If you got too close to America, if you continue up - down to this path, you will have problems. But what's happening now is beyond what I could have imagined. And if they get away with this in Georgia, the world will be in trouble.

BRAND: The State Department is sending an envoy to the region to help mediate a ceasefire. Reporter Lawrence Sheets is in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He's here now. And Lawrence, let's start with this first, basic question. And I know this is complicated, but if you could just boil it down for us, what is this conflict about?

LAWRENCE SHEETS: Well, this started as a separatist conference back in the early 1990s, when the 25,000 or 35,000 or so ethnic Ossetians living in South Ossetia declared independence. They did not want to be part of Georgia, in which they saw minority rights at risk. The Ossetians won that war with quite a lot of help from volunteers from Russia's North Caucasus region. The Georgians were repelled, and for the next 10 years, South Ossetia was simply forgotten by the Georgian political establishment. What's happened in the last few years is that Georgia has made moves to try and reassert control some way over South Ossetia, try to find a compromise, a political compromise, offer the Ossetians all sorts of autonomy.

But they've also seen Russia getting increasingly involved. Russia has given passports to the entire South Ossetian population. The Russian - Russian officials run many of the separatist institutions. The Russian flag flies over South Ossetia these days.

And over the last year, we've had many, many minor clashes between the Ossetians and Georgian troops, and just over the last two days, some very serious fighting in which ethnic Georgian villages were attacked. Russia has always said that it would fight on the Ossetians side, if Georgia made any moves to reassert its control. And yesterday Russia - Georgia over the last 24 hours, took control of the separatist capital of Tskhinvali. So, what we have now are two divisions of the Russian army which have marched across the international frontier and right into Georgia, and they are staring down Georgian troops who are also in that city.

BRAND: So, why is Russia so heavily involved in this?

SHEETS: There are many reasons. Ossetians have more of an affinity for Russia than for Georgia. At times they talked about joining Russia. But this is also seen as a geopolitical game. Georgia wants to become a member of NATO. Georgia ousted Russian military bases from its territory. This comes after Russia's position on Kosovo was ignored. And after that, Russia began even - stepping up its relations even more with the separatist parts of Georgia. Many people see this as Russia punishing Georgia for its aspirations to be pro-Western and to be part of the NATO alliance, which would bring the NATO alliance right to Russia's southern border, which it regards it as its backyard. So, maybe people - people see this as a punitive position on the side of Russia.

BRAND: So, this is really now not just a separatist as rebellion. It's really a conflict between two states.

SHEETS: As a matter of fact, both leaders, President - Prime Minister Putin and President Saakashvili today called it a war. President Saakashvili - I'll paraphrase him - said that they were - that Georgia was at war with Russia. And certainly this has gone way beyond the small, separatist conflict. This is a direct military conflict now between Russia - 145 million people - and Georgia, which has about four and a half million people.

BRAND: OK. Lawrence Sheets, reporting from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Thank you very much.

SHEETS: Thank you.

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Georgia-Russia Conflict Escalates Over Separatists

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Georgia launches an offensive into South Ossetia. i

Georgia launched a massive attack Friday to regain control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. AP/First Channel hide caption

toggle caption AP/First Channel
Georgia launches an offensive into South Ossetia.

Georgia launched a massive attack Friday to regain control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

AP/First Channel
Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili addresses the nation from Tbilisi.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili addresses the nation from Tbilisi on Friday. AP/First Channel hide caption

toggle caption AP/First Channel

Russia sent tanks and warplanes into the former Soviet republic of Georgia on Friday after Georgia launched a military offensive to retake its breakaway province, South Ossetia.

A large number of civilians were reported dead as a result of the military action by Georgia and Russia in the worst outbreak of violence since South Ossetia won de facto independence from Georgia in 1992. Figures of the number killed vary widely from hundreds to more than a thousand. The region encompasses about 50,000 people.

Russia had hundreds of peacekeeping troops already in South Ossetia before Friday's events and said 10 of its peacekeepers were killed in fierce fighting. Georgia said 30 of its soldiers were killed by Russian artillery in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

Georgia said Russian jets bombed air bases deep inside Georgia. The Georgians said they shot down several Russian planes, something Moscow denied.

"I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars," said Lyudmila Ostayeva, who fled the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali to a village near the border with Russia. "It's impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged."

War Of Words, Too

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia had been amassing troops on the border for months and used Georgia's efforts to retake control of the region as an excuse to invade.

"We are no longer in 1979. It's no longer Afghanistan. It's no longer Czechoslovakia of 1968," Saakashvili said, citing Soviet actions of the past. "You cannot bring in tanks like to Budapest in 1956."

Georgia's actions likewise infuriated the Russian leadership. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Beijing for the Olympics, condemned what he called Georgia's act of aggression.

"They've started a military operation using all kinds of heavy artillery and tanks," Putin said. "This is a very sad and worrying development to which of course we'll have to respond."

Diplomatic Efforts Begin

Western diplomats are scrambling to prevent the hostilities from turning into a major conflict that could engulf the entire Caucasus region. NATO and the European Union called for an immediate cease-fire.

In Washington, the U.S. also called for an immediate cease-fire. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making calls to top officials urging all parties to remain calm.

Gallegos said a U.S. envoy is traveling to the region Friday in hopes of bringing an end to hostilities. The U.S. supports Georgia's territorial integrity, he said.

U.S. Defense Department officials have had some contact with Georgian authorities, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. He said Georgia has not asked for U.S. help, but he would not give any details of the discussions.

According to Whitman, the U.S. has about 130 trainers in Georgia, including a few dozen civilians who are all working to prepare the Georgian forces for their next deployment to Iraq. However, Georgian officials announced Friday that they will withdraw 1,000 soldiers from Iraq to help fight off Russian forces in South Ossetia.

Georgia launched a major offensive into South Ossetia overnight, with Georgian fighter jets, heavy artillery and rocket attacks pounding positions inside Tskhinvali. Buildings were ablaze, and much of the city was damaged. The separatists evacuated women and children north of the border into Russia.

Saakashvili said his forces had "freed" the greater part of Tskhinvali, and he ordered a full-scale mobilization of military reservists. Georgian troops have been fighting pro-Moscow rebels in the separatist stronghold.

The Russian Defense Ministry had pledged to protect South Ossetians, most of whom have Russian citizenship, as the conflict in the region heated up.

Georgian officials said they launched the operation after a week of clashes between separatists and Georgian troops in which nearly 20 people were killed. Georgia aims to end South Ossetia's effective independence, won in a 1991-92 war.

From NPR and wire service reports



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