- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2008

Russian and Georgian troops Friday clashed in a bloody struggle for control of the Georgian separatist enclave of South Ossetia, with Russian tanks crossing the border into a province that has long been a flashpoint in the region.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and European leaders urgently appealed for calm amid conflicting reports of the struggle for control of the regional capital of Tskhinvali. President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly discussed the crisis as the two were attending the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili announced he would declare martial law and blamed Moscow for provoking the crisis, telling CNN in an interview Friday, “My country is in self-defense against Russian aggression. Russian troops invaded Georgia.”

Underscoring the depth of the crisis, Georgia announced it was withdrawing half of its 2,000-soldier force deployed in Iraq. The Georgian contingent was the third-largest foreign force in Iraq behind the United States and Britain.

“Georgia is facing Russian large-scale military intervention and Georgia needs its soldiers here,” Alexander Lomaia, secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, told reporters in Tbilisi, the capital.

But at an emergency U.N. Security Council session late Friday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin accused Georgian forces of deliberately targeting Russian peacekeepers operating legally in South Ossetia and of conducting a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in the rebellious province.

A Russian convoy of tanks crossed the Georgian border Friday, sent as reinforcements for a Russian-peacekeeping force already stationed inside Georgia. The incursion came after Georgian forces took control over six villages near Tskhinvali earlier in the day - an attack Russian defense officials claimed resulted in death of its peacekeepers in the region.

South Ossetian leaders claimed Georgia used airplanes, armor and heavy artillery in its strike, while Georgia said Russian aircraft bombed Georgian air bases, villages and civilian sites outside South Ossetia in retaliation.

Saying Russia’s presence in South Ossetia was sanctioned under an international mandate, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev denounced what he called “an act of [Georgian] aggression against Russian peacekeepers and the civilian population in South Ossetia.”

“We will not allow the deaths of our fellow citizens to go unpunished. The perpetrators will receive the punishment they deserve,” Mr. Medvedev said.

Conflicting statements from the region made it hard to gauge the scale of the fighting. South Ossetia, whose ethnic population has close cultural and political links to Russia’s North Ossetia province across the border, has resisted control from Tbilisi after Georgia broke from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

South Ossetia political leader Eduard Kokoity told reporters that hundreds of civilians had been killed in the fighting, while busloads of refugees were seen crossing into Russia. The Russians claimed at least 10 soldiers in their peacekeeping force had been killed and another 30 wounded.

Miss Rice, European Union foreign policy head Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer were among the world leaders appealing for restraint.

“We call on Russia to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgian territorial integrity, and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil,” Miss Rice said.

Both U.S. presidential candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain issued their own calls for calm. A U.S. official in Washington said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, a specialist on the region, will be traveling soon to Tbilisi and elsewhere with European diplomats.

The crisis began Friday when Georgian troops launched a major military operation to regain control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. The rebellious region has never obtained international recognition and has long been engaged in a tense stand-off with Mr. Saakashvili.

While stopping short of recognizing South Ossetia’s independence, Moscow has long extended political, diplomatic and economic links to the province and to Abkhazia, another ethnic enclave in Georgia that has resisted rule from Tbilisi.

Georgian officials blame the separatist government for violating a cease fire this week, saying the Georgian military move came only in response to continual South Ossetian attacks.

After Tbilisi moved to disarm separatist forces in the South Ossetia region, Russia countered with its own offensive.

“The Russian Federation undertook a direct and full-scale attack against Georgia, both inside Georgia’s territory of South Ossetia as well as outside the conflict zone,” the Georgian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Zeyno Baran, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Eurasian Policy, said it “wasn’t in Georgia’s interest” to provoke a confrontation now. She said it was clear Russia was forcing matters in the conflict after the NATO summit in April in which the alliance stated that it was willing to accept both Georgia and Ukraine as members someday.

“Georgians resisted using force for as much as possible, but ultimately it is a sovereign country that has to protect its own territorial integrity and has to defend itself,” she added.

cThis article was based in part on wire service reports.

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