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Russian troops raid Georgian town; scores dead

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Russian troops raid Georgian town; scores dead

Post  Admin on Sat Aug 09, 2008 11:34 am

Russian tanks and troops rumbled into the separatist province of South Ossetia and Russian aircraft bombed a Georgian town Saturday in a major escalation of the conflict that has left hundreds of civilians dead and wounded.

Russia, which has close ties to the province and posts peacekeepers there, sent in the armed convoys and combat aircraft to prevent Georgia from retaking control of its breakaway region. The military convoys included volunteers from around Russia's North Caucasus. Georgia, a U.S. ally whose troops have been trained by American soldiers, launched a major offensive overnight Friday. Heavy rocket and artillery fire pounded the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, leaving much of the city in ruins.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on Saturday that some 1,500 people have been killed in South Ossetia, with the death toll rising.

The figures could not be independently confirmed. But Tskhinvali residents who survived the bombardment by hiding in basements and later fled the city estimated that hundreds of civilians had died. They said bodies were lying everywhere.The risk of the conflict setting off a wider war increased Saturday when Russian-supported separatists in another breakaway region, Abkhazia, launched air and artillery strikes to drive Georgian troops from their bridgehead.

Georgia, which borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union.Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and have built up ties with Moscow. Russia has granted its passports to most of their residents.

It was unclear which side controlled the provincial capital of South Ossetia by Saturday evening. Russian military commanders claimed they had driven Georgian forces out of Tskhinvali, which Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili denied. Smoke rose from the city, and intermittent artillery shelling and sporadic gunfire continued.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Moscow sent troops into South Ossetia to force Georgia into a cease-fire. Saakashvili said he has proposed a cease-fire, but Medvedev's office said Saturday evening that Russia had not received his proposal.

Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, long has pledged to restore Georgia's rule over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership — a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its influence in the region.The fighting is the worst outbreak of hostilities since South Ossetia won de facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. It also is likely to increase tensions between Moscow and Washington, which Lavrov said should bear part of the blame for arming and training Georgian soldiers.

Moscow has said it needs to protect its peacekeepers and civilians in South Ossetia. Ethnic Ossetians live in the breakaway Georgian province and in the neighboring Russian province of North Ossetia.

Georgia has accused Russia of bombing its air bases and a Black Sea port, located on Georgian territory outside South Ossetia. One of the Russian airstrikes Saturday hit the Georgian town of Gori, the hometown of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. An Associated Press reporter who visited Gori shortly afterward saw several apartment buildings in ruins, some still on fire, and scores of dead bodies and bloodied civilians. The elderly, women and children were among the victims.The Russian planes appeared to have been targeting a military base in Gori's outskirts that also sustained hits.

Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's Security Council, estimated that Russia has sent 2,500 troops into Georgia. The Russian military has not said how many of its troops were deployed.One Russian unit deployed near Tskhinvali had to change location quickly Saturday when Georgian shells started to land nearby.

A 19-year-old Russian conscript, a member of a tank crew, said his unit was supposed to take part in a military exercise in North Ossetia but was suddenly sent into South Ossetia. The soldier, who asked not be named because he wasn't allowed to speak to reporters, said that his tank accompanied a motorized infantry unit that was hit by Georgian shelling and suffered casualties. The tank was broken and the soldiers were trying to fix it on the edge of the woods.

Georgian forces knocked out about 40 Russian tanks around Tskhinvali, said Georgia's Deputy Interior Minister Eka Sguladze. "Our units are well-equipped with anti-tank rockets, and they thwarted a Russian tank attack," she told reporters. The Interior Ministry said Russian warplanes bombed the Vaziani military base on the outskirts of the Georgian capital and near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline overnight. The ministry said two other military bases were hit, and that warplanes bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizable oil shipment facility.

Lavrov said Georgia brought the airstrikes upon itself by bombing civilians and Russian peacekeepers. He warned that the small Caucasus country should expect more attacks. "Whatever side is used to bomb civilians and the positions of peacekeepers, this side is not safe and they should know this," Lavrov said.

Asked whether Russia could bomb the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, Lavrov answered: "I don't think the bombing is coming from Tbilisi, but whatever part of Georgia is used for this aggression is not safe." The foreign minister said the United States should bear some of the blame for Georgia's aggression because of the role it played in arming and training Georgian troops. It was unclear what might persuade either side to stop shooting. Both claim the battle started after the other side violated a cease-fire that had been declared just hours earlier after a week of sporadic clashes.

President Bush on Saturday urged an immediate halt to the fighting, which he said endangered peace throughout the volatile region. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush had spoken very recently with Medvedev and Saakashvili. Georgia, meanwhile, said it has shot down 10 Russian planes, including four brought down Saturday, according to Lomaia. It also claimed to have captured two Russian pilots, who were shown on Georgian television.

The first Russian confirmation that its planes had been shot down came Saturday from Russian Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the General Staff, who said two Russian planes were downed. He did not say where or when. Russian military commanders said 15 peacekeepers have been killed and about 150 wounded. Russian military spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov accused Georgian troops of killing and wounded Russian peacekeepers when they seized Russian checkpoints. Konashenkov's allegations couldn't be independently confirmed. In Abkhazia, the separatist government said it intended to push Georgian forces out of the Kodori Gorge. The northern part of the gorge is the only area of Abkhazia that has remained under Georgian government control.
Lomaia, the Georgian Security Council secretary, said that Georgian administrative buildings in the Kodori Gorge were bombed, but he blamed the attack on Russia.;_ylt=AvWJE.fZL9Gg7WN2kO_hVw1bbBAF


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