Georgian Troops Retreat In Conflict With Russia

The former Soviet republic's government presses for a truce in the conflict over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Georgian troops retreated Sunday under heavy fire from Russia. The civilian ethnic Georgian minority in South Ossetia also was fleeing.

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LIANE HANSEN, host: From NPR News this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. Russia continues its military offensive in Georgia, now targeting the capital of the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. Georgian troops have withdrawn under heavy Russian fire. South Ossetia is a pro-Moscow separatist province. The Bush administration warned this morning that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia risks significant long-term impact if the fighting continues. NPR's Ivan Watson is on a highway just a couple of miles from South Ossetia. Ivan, first of all tell us what you've been seeing.

IVAN WATSON: Well, Liane, the reports that the Georgians are withdrawing from South Ossetia are true. I came across a number of soldiers, perhaps 40 or 50, who had been in the capital of that breakaway region, and they fled this morning after sustaining what they said was heavy Russian aerial bombardment against which they said they had no protection. So they went into that area Thursday night, that offensive helped triggered this larger conflict, and now they are already retreating from that area.

And as well as the military retreat by the Georgian military, we're also seeing the ethnic Georgian minority in that breakaway region fleeing as well, thousands of people. Some of them slept on the streets of the Georgian capital last night, and on this highway I'm seeing cars packed with belongings and people fleeing South Ossetia and areas near the border for fear that the Russians will move in.

HANSEN: Russian officials, however, are saying this morning they are not targeting civilians. What do you know about the humanitarian situation? I understand you were able to visit a hospital earlier today.

WATSON: I went to a hospital in the town of Gori which is near the border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and there at one civilian hospital the doctor said he'd seen 60 to 70 wounded over the past three days and at least 15 people killed. Most of those, he said, from several apartment buildings in the town of Gori which were hit by Russian air strikes early on Saturday.

HANSEN: We are hearing news that the conflict might spread to nearby Abkhazia which is another separatist region of Georgia. What are you hearing?

WATSON: That is a concern, Liane. This morning, one of the Georgian ministers went on Georgian radio and he warned the people of South Ossetia and of Abkhazia, another breakaway region, not to fight. He also warned Georgian troops not to fire back at Abkhazians or Russian troops that he said were firing at the Georgians. He claimed that Russia wants a new war in the Caucuses, and that the people of this region should do everything possible to stop it. There is definitely a fear, though, that if the other breakaway region, Abkhazia, also explodes that the small republic could be facing a conflict on at least two fronts.

HANSEN: Ivan, is it possible, briefly, to put this in context for us because it appears incredibly messy?

WATSON: It is very messy. You've had two so-called frozen conflicts involving these two breakaway regions off of Georgia, Russian-backed breakaway regions. For more than 15 years, the status quo kind of continued. There were periodic incidents, some gun fire. Those tensions exacerbated since the election of the very pro-American Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and it seems his gambit to go in and seize control of South Ossetia Thursday night has failed now. He's already lost that territory. And now it's a question of how much more Russia may take.

HANSEN: NPR's Ivan Watson on a highway just a couple of miles from the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. Ivan, thank you.

WATSON: You're welcome, Liane.

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