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Georgia, Russia move closer to full-blown war

Moscow ignores truce calls, saying that it just wants to restore calm.

August 10, 2008|Megan K. Stack and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — Russia plowed closer to all-out war with Georgia on Saturday, sending warplanes to bomb deep inside the neighboring country and preparing to move more troops into the fray over a pro-Moscow separatist republic.

Moscow brushed aside calls from the Georgian government for a cease-fire, insisting that the troops' mission was to restore calm to the breakaway republic, South Ossetia.

"We are enforcing peace," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who reported that the death toll was 1,500 and climbing. That figure could not be confirmed.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, meanwhile, declared a state of war, and Georgia's parliament voted to impose martial law.

"We, on our own, cannot fight with Russia," Saakashvili told the BBC. "We want immediate cease-fire . . . and international mediation."

Lavrov called the truce appeal a "cynical" move, given that the fighting began when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack on South Ossetia late last week.

The fighting threatens to inflame the volatile Caucasus region, where Russia and the United States vie for influence among former Soviet states. Tensions between Moscow and the West have sharpened in recent years, with an increasingly wealthy Russia striving to restore the superpower status it lost with the Soviet collapse.

As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rushed home from the Beijing Olympics on Saturday, President Bush made an appeal.

"Georgia is a sovereign nation, and its territorial integrity must be respected," Bush said, in the latest sign that his administration is lining up behind Saakashvili's pro-Western government in the worsening conflict. "We call for an end to the Russian bombings.

"I'm deeply concerned," Bush said. "The United States takes this matter very seriously."

Bush was careful to urge both sides to stand down. But his remarks clearly placed the onus for the escalating violence on the Kremlin, saying that bombings in Georgia were occurring "far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia" and calling on Russia to cease such attacks.

A senior U.S. official, speaking to reporters on the traditional diplomatic condition of anonymity, was more blunt, saying that Russia was attacking Georgian territory with ballistic missiles and large strategic bombers that can carry 54,000 pounds of bombs.

"I, for the life of me, can't imagine how that could be a proportional response to allegations that Georgians had fired upon Russian peacekeepers," the official said.

The official said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been in contact with her European counterparts Saturday and was contemplating sending an envoy to the region to help broker a cease-fire.

But the official said the U.S. was not considering any military aid to the Georgians. The U.S. has military trainers in Georgia to help modernize the country's armed forces, and less than 150 are believed to be in Georgian territory.

In Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian republic backed by Russia, fighters launched attacks on Georgian military positions. Like South Ossetia, Abkhazia won de facto autonomy in a bloody war with Georgia, and is now leaning on Russia in hope of winning independence. The outbreak of fighting in Abkhazia raised the threat of a broader war in the Caucasus.

In another sign that a bigger, bloodier fight could be in store, Russia moved its Black Sea fleet closer to the Georgia coast Saturday, Interfax news agency reported. Georgia has already called for a mass mobilization of all reservists, and called its 2,000 troops home from Iraq to join the fight.

After returning from Beijing, Putin installed himself in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, just over the border from South Ossetia. Once back on Russian turf, Putin was plainly at the helm of war planning -- consulting with the military, denouncing Georgia and meeting with South Ossetian refugees.

The prime minister accused Georgia of "genocide" of South Ossetians and pledged Russian funds to rebuild the capital of the breakaway republic. He also hinted that Georgia no longer had the moral authority to assert territorial control over South Ossetia.

Longtime tension

Ethnic tensions have brewed between Georgians and South Ossetians for generations. Critics say Moscow has stoked that animosity, especially in recent months, by supporting South Ossetia's separatist drive and granting Russian passports to residents.

Each side is struggling to frame the other's involvement as an invasion and to portray the other as the aggressor.

"The reason we're going to the region in such a rush is that we're trying to figure out what's going on down there," said Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch in Moscow. "If you compare the Russian side with the Georgian side, it appears right away that something is really very wrong with the information we are receiving."

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