Russian Troops Take Key Georgian Town
NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Georgia on 'All Things Considered'
Russian forces have forced most Georgian soldiers to abandon the key central Georgian town of Gori, 50 miles west of the capital, Tbilisi, in the fourth day of fighting in the Caucasus.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili says the Russian move effectively cuts his small country in half, and he made an urgent appeal for international intervention.
On Monday afternoon, Georgian tanks rumbled through Gori's all-but-deserted streets. Their treads echoed through a central square, where a statue of Joseph Stalin stands, in memory of this town's most infamous son.
Gori is just 20 miles from South Ossetia, the breakaway region where this savage little war erupted just a few days ago. Georgian troops stormed that Russian-backed separatist region on Thursday. But then Russian warplanes retaliated by attacking Georgian soldiers in South Ossetia and bombing other targets around Georgia, including Gori.
On Sunday, Saakashvili pulled his troops out of South Ossetia and has since made repeated appeals for a cease-fire. He briefly visited Gori on Monday, wearing a camouflage flak jacket. He was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who traveled to the region to try to hammer out a cease-fire agreement.
When asked if there had been any luck with negotiations, Kouchner replied: "Yes. We had some luck here, but this is just the beginning.
"Having luck on one side doesn't mean anything if you have no luck on the other side, so we'll go to Moscow now and see."
Before leaving for Russia for more talks, the French diplomat visited a hospital in Gori, where he was told that drugs were likely to last another few days.
"We need your help, sir," one doctor told him.
With fears of a possible Russian invasion looming, some of the residents weren't reaching out to Western countries for help — they turned to a high power instead.
Ketevan Vatiashvili, 23, stopped at a tiny church on a windy hilltop to pray for peace in her town.
"I came here to this church to pray because I really believe that God can ... [save] us," she says. "It's a very, very dangerous situation."
As she spoke, a deadly artillery duel broke out on the plain below, which separated Gori from Russian troops in South Ossetia. At one point, a fleet of seven attack helicopters suddenly roared overhead and raced toward the battlefield. They circled and strafed the ground in a flash of fire and smoke, pulling back just a few minutes later. Then, without any explanation, word suddenly spread that the Georgian army was retreating from Gori.
Some Georgian soldiers yelled, "Get out of here before you get killed," as they hastily climbed aboard a military truck.
Dozens of vehicles, including army trucks loaded with soldiers and civilian vehicles with soldiers hanging on to them, fled Gori, racing down the highway.
After just a few days of fighting with the Russian army, the retreat from the strategic town appeared haphazard. The faces of Georgian soldiers were dejected. Some crossed themselves as they were in full flight from the town they were supposed to defend.