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Russia widens Georgia assault

As troops launch a second front, U.S. demands that Moscow pull back

August 12, 2008|Megan K. Stack and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Russian soldiers plunged into western Georgia on Monday to open a second front in the two countries' 4-day-old war, provoking fresh worries about the Kremlin's ultimate goal in the conflict.

In Washington, President Bush said it appeared Russia was planning to overthrow the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a strong U.S. ally. Using unusually blunt language, he demanded that Russia "reverse the course it appears to be on," but did not say what the United States might do otherwise.

Saakashvili, in an interview with CNN, vowed to fight on alone "until the end" if necessary, but added, "My people feel let down by world democracies."

The conflict threatens to drive a deeper wedge in a growing divide between Russia and the West. Although Georgia launched the initial attack on South Ossetia, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Georgia, and Russia says it is acting to protect the local population, the United States and Western European countries regard its response as wildly disproportionate.

The fighting lurched to a new level Monday when Russian troops stormed out of Abkhazia, a second secessionist region located in northwestern Georgia, to seize control of an army base near the town of Senaki inside Georgia proper. To the east, Georgia's military struggled to regain ground lost to Russia in South Ossetia.

Georgian reservists in flip-flops, along with drawn, dirty soldiers, mingled on the outskirts of South Ossetia, taking cover under trees and overpasses while Russian warplanes hammered the roads.

Late in the day, Russia's Defense Ministry said its troops had pulled back from the army base near Senaki after having "eliminated the threat" that Georgian troops posed to its soldiers in South Ossetia, the Interfax news agency reported. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was quoted as saying that Russia had completed the "bigger part of the operation to coerce the Georgian side to peace in South Ossetia."

Earlier, Saakashvili said that Russian troops had in effect sliced his country in half by seizing control of the main east-west highway at the central Georgian city of Gori. Russia denied the claim, and the conflicting accounts could not be immediately resolved.

Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have essentially governed themselves since shortly after Georgia became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia has long deployed peacekeeping troops in both regions.

The long-simmering conflict erupted in earnest last week when Georgia launched a surprise operation to seize control of South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers and hundreds of civilians. Russia has bombed targets inside Georgia and imposed a sea blockade, moving its Black Sea fleet along the coast to prevent supplies and goods from entering the country.

The emergence of a second front near Abkhazia is another sign that Russia might be intending to continue punishing the smaller, poorer country, which lies between Russia and Turkey and has been dominated by Russia for most of its modern history. Georgia has strategic significance, in part because of its location on the route of a pipeline that carries oil from the Caspian Sea to the West.

Bush, in a televised statement from the White House Rose Garden soon after he returned home from the Olympic Games in Beijing, said he was "deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori and are threatening . . . Georgia's capital of Tbilisi. There's evidence that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city."

"If these reports are accurate," he added, "these Russian actions would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia."

Bush misspoke at one point, saying an effort appeared underway "to depose Russia's duly elected government." He meant Georgia's government, repeating an assertion made earlier by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, denied that suggestion Monday as the U.N. Security Council met for its fifth day of emergency talks, which were closed to the public.

In a press briefing after the meeting, Khalilzad said that although Churkin responded to his repeated question, he did not go far enough.

"We hope Russia will join the broad consensus that is emerging, that this has gone on for too long," Khalilzad said. He warned that the conflict would have "implications for the region, implications for the future relations of Russia with the United States, and the other international communities."

Churkin told reporters that Russia was not likely to accept the current draft of a U.N. resolution.

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