- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

Russia and Georgia appeared headed to a wider war Saturday, with Russia targeting military and civilian sites outside the conflict zone in the breakaway region of South Ossetia and rejecting an offer of a cease-fire from the government of Georgia.

The military action, which began Thursday when Georgian troops tried to retake control of South Ossetia, has left hundreds dead and sent hundreds of others fleeing from the area.

Georgian officials reported some 210 people dead and 400 wounded. Russian officials, who blamed Georgia for inflicting heavy causalities against Russian citizens in the breakaway South Ossetia enclave, put the death toll at 1,500.

Neither count could be independently confirmed.

Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, on Saturday issued a decree establishing martial law and putting Georgia in a state of war so that it could prepare for a full-scale Russian invasion. He has already summoned 2,000 soldiers home from Iraq, where they are fighting alongside coalition forces.

But Mr. Saakashvili also issued an urgent plea to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for a cease-fire and a call for international mediation of the crisis.

“We call on Russia to stop this madness immediately,” he said. “I ask President Medvedev to cease fire and begin negotiations right away.”

Russia’s ambassador to NATO said Saturday his country is not at war with Georgia, but there would be no cease-fire until Georgian troops returned to positions they held before their South Ossetian offensive.

Dmitry Rogozin urged the Western alliance to stay out of the “limited” South Ossetia conflict and said Russia was there to protect its nationals.

“We do not consider ourselves in a state of war. We are just [keeping] the peace and helping our peacekeepers and the civilian population,” he said.

The conflict has drawn international condemnation, with the European Union announcing a meeting of European foreign ministers early this week and the possibility of an emergency EU summit.

The European Union “strongly states its commitment to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Georgia and its internationally recognized borders and urges Russia to respect them,” said a statement released by France, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

The EU “underscores that the military actions [against Georgia] could affect EU-Russian relations,” it added.

The U.N. Security Council - of which Russia is a permanent member - met Saturday to discuss the escalating conflict but was too split to issue a unanimous call for a cease-fire, diplomats said.

President Bush, speaking from Beijing where he was attending the Olympic Games, called on Russia to stop hostilities, citing the potential for “dangerous escalation.”

“The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia. They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis.”

Mr. Rogozin disputed that charge, saying that Russia had not conducted “any military operation [against] Georgia outside the conflict zone.”

The hostilities began Thursday when Georgian troops tried to retake control of South Ossetia, one of the country’s two Russian-backed separatist regions. South Ossetia, home to many non-ethnic Georgians with Russian passports, wishes to unite with North Ossetia across the Russian border.

But the localized conflict escalated Friday when Russia responded with an assault of tanks, trucks, paratroopers and foot soldiers, who streamed across the border into Georgia.

Moscow on Saturday also sent one of its main naval fleets closer to Abkhazia, where Russian-supported separatists also targeted Georgian troops by launching air and artillery strikes to drive them out.

Meanwhile, fears of an all-out war with Russia gripped Georgia, a former Soviet republic that has embraced Western ways and even sought to join the NATO alliance after rejecting Russia’s totalitarian and collectivist past.

As the day progressed, dismay and confusion mounted alongside speculation over Russia’s motives. And reports from the field grew somber.

“The situation is getting worse and worse and the Russian military attack is getting larger and larger,” said Georgian Foreign Minister Ekan Tkeshelashvili. “We are under a full military attack.”

Ms. Tkeshelashvili said Russian planes had bombed villages in east Georgia and carried out “very intense bombings in west Georgia against economic, military and civilian targets.”

She said Russian troops were fighting Georgian troops in the country’s southern region, and that the capital city of South Ossetia, Tshinvali, had been “completely destroyed” by Russian bombs, though it remained under Georgian control.

Ms. Tkeshelashvili said Russians had bombed the seaport of Poti, killing 56 people and destroying a nearby railway station. Jets attempted to bomb two key oil pipelines but missed their targets, she said.

Ms. Tkeshelashvili said that despite their aerial power, the Russians had only managed to gain full control of the border area around the Roki Tunnel, which slices through the Greater Caucasus Mountains to connect South Ossetia to its Russian cousin, North Ossetia.

Though she said she had not confirmed reports, Ms. Tkeshelashvili said she had heard that Russian authorities had warned a U.N. Monitoring Mission near Abkhazia to clear the area.

Vasil Sikharulidze, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Times that Russia’s actions are meant as a message.

“This is a signal that they are trying to return to the Cold War sphere of influence,” he said. “They are trying to put out a message to other countries that if they pursue Western affiliations, they will be punished.”

Georgian officials and a senior State Department official expressed surprise that Russia broadened its attacks beyond conflict boundaries and failed to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

The U.S. official, who asked to remain anonymous because efforts to stop the conflict are ongoing, speculated that Moscow could be attempting to block Georgia’s bid for NATO membership by instilling fear in the alliance that it could be drawn into a conflict with Russia.

The official also said it was hard to understand how Moscow could bomb a sovereign nation while refusing to accept a cease-fire or international mediation.

Mr. Sikharulidze said the Russians promised to stop attacks only if Georgia pulls all its troops from the disputed region.

“That is something that simply won’t happen,” he said. He suggested, however, that a mutual and simultaneous withdrawal could be negotiable.

The senior State Department official said that the U.S. Embassy in Tblisi was prepared to evacuate dependents of diplomats.

“There is the opportunity for dependents who wish to depart Tbilisi if they want,” he said. “That means dependents have the right to leave and expenses covered when they depart.”

South Ossetia is less than 100 miles from Tbilisi.

“The situation [in South Ossetia] continues to deteriorate,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a telephone press conference from Moscow. “The massive shelling of the Tshinvali and other cities and villages continues while humanitarian convoys are being attacked from air.”

He added: “There are reports to be verified, but are quite credible, that some villages are being razed by Georgian forces, which is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.”

Without naming names, though obviously referring to the United States, Mr. Lavrov castigated nations that provided Georgia’s army with weapons and training, giving them “a sense of immunity.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to interview requests by press time.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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