- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

Russian planes, troops and artillery units pounded the Georgian city of Gori in a “massive” attack, Georgian officials said Monday as the three-day war over an ethnic enclave in Georgia appeared to escalate.

“There was massive bombing of Gori all evening and now we are getting reports of an imminent attack by Russian tanks,” said ministry official Shota Utiashvili, who was quoted early Monday in a report by Agence France-Presse.

Gori is in Georgia, south of the border with South Ossetia, the disputed region that prompted the bloody conflict.

Georgia on Sunday said it was withdrawing troops from the embattled region of South Ossetia as part of a cease-fire proposal meant to stop an expanding war with Russia.

But Moscow dismissed the gesture by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, as Russian jets, troops and tanks continued a relentless assault on targets across Georgia.

Georgian officials said Russian jets, marking a significant expansion of its operations, bombed the civilian airport in Tbilisi, the capital.

Yevgeniy Khorishko, an official at the Russian Embassy in Washington, said he had no official confirmation of the strike and he questioned the sincerity of Mr. Saakashvili’s gesture.

“At this moment the Georgian troops, despite President Saakashvili’s promises of a cease-fire, are regrouping with heavy armor and artillery to launch new attacks,” Mr. Khorishko said in an e-mail.

He said the Georgian military is undergoing a “mass mobilization” and cited the fact that Georgian troops now in Iraq have been called home.

President Bush sought to contain the conflict in Georgia on Sunday as the White House warned that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered,” the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Bush, in Beijing for the Olympics, has pressed for internaitonal mediation and reached out Sunday to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who heads the European Union. The two agreed on the need for a cease-fire and a respect for Georgia’s integrity, a White House spokesman said.

The U.N. Security Council met for the fourth time in four days Sunday, with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accusing Moscow of seeking “regime change” in Georgia and resisting attempts to make peace. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russians don’t use the expression, but acknowledged there were occasions when elected leaders “become an obstacle.”

On Friday, Russian forces crossed into neighboring Georgia ostensibly to repel a Georgian military attack against South Ossetia, one of two self-declared autonomous regions backed by Moscow and populated by people who are not ethnic Georgians and many of whom carry Russian passports.

Death tolls are impossible to confirm.

The Russian government said 15 Russian peacekeeping troops have been killed and 150 wounded. It accuses the Georgian military of killing 2,000 South Ossetians.

Georgia’s death toll estimates are considerably lower.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have strongly justified the operation on the need to protect its citizens living across the border.

“Georgia has subjected South Ossetia to very serious and cynical aggression,” Mr. Medvedev said in a written statement, in which he accused the Georgian army of genocide.

Mr. Medvedev said South Ossetians had been “murdered, burnt, crushed by tanks, had their throats cut.”

His government is sending 150 investigators to interview victims of the attack and compile evidence.

Russian and Georgian diplomats told The Washington Times this weekend that Moscow will stop fighting only if Georgia - a nation whose Western leanings and membership bids for NATO and the European Union irk Russian leaders - unconditionally withdraws all troops from South Ossetia and signs an agreement not to use force against South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, with harrowing images beaming over airways and on the Internet, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia released a letter describing a pitched battle in Tskhinvali, a provincial capital in South Ossetia.

Mr. Lomaia said Georgian military forces won hard-fought battles with the Russian army on Saturday night in the city of Tskhinvali, located almost 60 miles northwest of Tbilisi, destroying 40 tanks and an unstated number of artillery batteries and soldiers.

But by early morning, Mr. Lomaia said, “overwhelming Russian reinforcements” arrived and Russian planes hit Tskhinvali with a “burned earth” tactic reminiscent of the Russian devastation of Grozny, Chechnya, in the 1990s.

He said Georgian units were forced to the outskirts of the destroyed city, where they “unilaterally ceased returning fire.”

“Nevertheless,” Mr. Lomaia wrote, “Russian attacks continued.”

Georgian authorities in a media release said that on Saturday night some 90 tanks, 150 armored personnel carriers and 250 artillery gunships had passed through the Roki Tunnel that links North and South Ossetia. The Georgian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday said the tunnel is under Russian control.

Officials also said 4,000 Russian troops landed at ports on the Black Sea, the alert stated.

The Georgian government claims in press alerts that Russia is trying to open a new battle front near the disputed region of Abkhazia, all of which is controlled by Russian-supported insurgents except for an area known as the Upper Kodori Valley, which is controlled by the Georgian government.

Georgia said Sunday that two planes had dropped 6 bombs on the village of Urta, near Zugdidi, not far from the separatist region.

AFP reported Sunday that U.N. monitors reported military actions in the region.

Edmond Mulet, the assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, delivered the news to the U.N. Security Council this weekend.

“Beginning yesterday afternoon, [a U.N. observation unit in Abkhazia known as UNOMIG] has reported ongoing aerial bombardments of Georgian villages in the Upper Kodori Valley.”

Mr. Mulet said UNOMIG “also observed the movement by the Abkhaz side of substantial numbers of heavy weapons and military personnel towards the Kodori Valley.”

Mr. Khorishko of the Russian Embassy denied the claim: “The Russian military does not conduct any combat operations in Abkhazia.”

He said Russian forces are targeting military infrastructure “in order to prevent Georgian attacks on South [Ossetia]” and denied Moscow was targeting “critical economical infrastructure including pipelines.”

The Georgian Foreign Ministry on Saturday said Russian bombs had come close to knocking out two key oil pipelines over the weekend.

Russia dispatched a major naval fleet to Georgia’s ports near the region of Abkhazia, and officials said Sunday that the Russian navy prevented a Moldovan cargo ship carrying wheat from entering the Poti Port.

Mr. Khorishko denied that report.

“Georgian allegations look chaotic and are based mostly on rumors and unconfirmed information,” he said.

International relations authorities said personal animosity, melded with geopolitical intentions to assert Russian power over former Soviet republics, explains the intensity and scope of Russia’s assault.

“Russia is intent on doing the same thing to Georgia as they believe NATO did to Serbia,” said David L. Phillips, a senior analyst at the Atlantic Council and a former senior adviser to the U.S. State Department. He said Washington should move beyond rhetoric and find meaningful ways to protect a key ally. He suggested that Washington could back plans for a no-fly zone over Georgian airspace, for example.

“The U.S. has a strategic interest in Georgia,” he said. “If other countries in world see we don’t stand up for friends, what incentive do they have to side with us?”

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