Russian troops dominate Georgia, seize key cities, port

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 11, 2008 

TBILISI, Georgia — Russian forces broadened their crushing offensive against Georgia on Monday, and Georgian officials feared the worst — that the Russian invasion would mean the end of their country’s independence.

Russian troops were reported in control of Georgia's main east-west highway outside the central Georgian town of Gori. In the west, they seized Georgia's main port at Poti, according to the U.S. State Department, and occupied a Georgian military base. In the north, they forced Georgian troops from the disputed city of Tskhinvali. Everywhere, Russian jets had complete dominion of the skies, from which they bombed and strafed retreating Georgians at will.

In Washington, President Bush warned of a "dramatic and brutal escalation" by Russia and said it appeared Russia might be trying to oust Georgia’s president, a former Washington lawyer who is a staunch U.S. ally.

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden immediately after flying home from China, Bush said it appeared Russia was moving beyond the original "zone of conflict" and might soon bomb the civilian airport and attack Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in a nationally broadcast address, said that he'd offered a cease-fire but had been rebuffed.

Russian officials said that Georgian forces were still fighting, however, and a Russian defense spokesman said Saakashvili's offer wasn't "worth a penny."

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nagovitsin, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, reiterated his government's bottom line: Russia won't cease fighting until Georgia not only pulls out of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia but also signs an agreement never to pursue force against them again.

The United States and Europe pressed for a cease-fire, without effect.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conferred by telephone with foreign ministers from the world's largest economic powers, who also urged Russia to accept a cease-fire and agree to international mediation.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chafed at the criticism, likening Russia's moves against Georgia to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shiite villages," Putin said from Moscow. "And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed 10 Ossetian villages at once, who ran over elderly people and children with tanks, who burned civilians alive in their sheds — these leaders must be taken under protection."

He also criticized the United States for flying 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq aboard U.S. military aircraft. “It is a shame that some of our partners are not helping us but, essentially, are hindering us,” Putin said.

What began as a Georgian offensive last Thursday night to wrest control of the Russia-backed South Ossetian region by Monday had grown into a punishing display of Russia’s military superiority.

"We have never been and will never be a passive observer in the region," said Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, according to state newswires.

The Russian government accused the Georgian military of a barbaric campaign against the separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, saying that as many as 2,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting. The Georgians put the numbers much lower.

Thousands of refugees have fled South Ossetia across the border to Russia during the past week. Georgia counters that the violence is the result of Russian aggression, aimed at destabilizing Saakashvili.

On Sunday, Russian tanks and jets pounded Georgian troops until they evacuated Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital. On Monday, Russian tanks moved to the edge of South Ossetia and toward Georgian-controlled villages there, according to Georgian troops who witnessed the fighting.

Russian aircraft hit the city of Gori, the home of a Georgian military base that sits between Tskhinvali and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. On Monday, a few buildings, apparently civilian targets, were blasted with holes and scorched by fire.

Early Tuesday, Elene Agladze, who works in the office of the Georgian director of national security, said Russian troops were reported on the outskirts of Gori, though she cautioned that the reports had not been officially confirmed.

"They are nearing the entrance of Gori," she said. "They are standing at the bridges across from Gori … they have stopped there."

Asked if there were fears that the Russians could plow on to Tbilisi, Agladze said, "with Russians, fear is always there."

Phone calls to residents there were unsuccessful.

Georgian officials said that Russian troops on Monday also moved beyond the western region of Abkhazia into Georgian-controlled areas, seizing a military base and strengthening a second flank that appeared to be squeezing toward Georgia's capital of Tbilisi.

The leader of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, told Russian state news agencies that his forces had offered a corridor of escape to Georgian soldiers. “But if they refuse to use it,” he said, his men would destroy the Georgians.

A senior State Department official briefing reporters in Washington said Russian troops had also occupied Georgia’s main Black Sea port, Poti.

Fear of the next Russian step was everywhere.

"I have no idea what the Russians will do next," said Anzori Gorgadze, who was in Gori to visit a wounded friend at the local hospital.

Shota Gazashvili, also in Gori, said he was worried that the Russians would push all the way to Tbilisi.

"We are all nervous," he said. "The Russians are going to invade, it's a big tragedy, what they're doing."

Georgian artillery batteries were staged in fields all along the road that runs from Tskhinvali to Gori. Georgian tanks and troop transport trucks sat under trees; soldiers had cut down limbs and covered the tops of them for camouflage. The troops said they were positioned to prevent a Russian blitz through Gori and then Tbilisi beyond.

Vladimir Pribylovski, the head of a Moscow research center, said that Russian officials were teaching Saakashvili a lesson after his military went after Russia's allies in South Ossetia.

"He miscalculated: he did not expect that Moscow would rap his knuckles. He thought it would just stick to rhetoric," Pribylovski said. "But the Kremlin risked giving him a thrashing and is quietly celebrating now."

The United States appeared to have few options. Aside from pronouncements, U.S. officials organized the overland departure to Armenia of 170 American civilians who were in Georgia. A contingent of U.S. military trainers, however, remained in the country. Pentagon officials said they feared pulling them out would be seen as abandonment of the Saakashvili government.

(Lasseter reported from Tbilisi, Thomma from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Alla Burakovskaya contributed from Moscow.)

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