The latest updates and articles on the conflict in the Caucasus from several news outlets:
Russia orders halt to war in Georgia
12/08/08 - 5.36am EDT
* Russia orders halt to war as Sarkozy begins peace mission
* Lavrov says Russia cannot agree to Georgia peacekeepers
* Abkhazia starts offensive in Kodori
By Michael Stott and Margarita Antidze
MOSCOW/TBILISI, Aug 12 (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a halt to military operations in Georgia on Tuesday after five days of fighting, just before French President Nicolas Sarkozy was to hold peace talks in Moscow.
A Kremlin spokesman confirmed that Medvedev had issued instructions to the Defence Ministry to "stop the operation to force the Georgian authorities to peace".
"The aggressor has been punished and sustained very serious losses," Interfax quoted Medvedev as telling Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
Russian markets rose on Medvedev's words, with the rouble strengthening and shares rallying strongly as nervous investors expressed relief.
"That's the signal people were waiting for. Things have fallen so low that we are about 50 percent cheaper than Brazilian equity," said Alfa Bank share salesman Konstantin Shapsharov. The news broke just before Sarkozy was to meet Medvedev at the Kremlin to discuss an international plan to halt the war, which has rattled world oil markets and unnerved the West.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier Moscow could not agree to the plan if it included Georgians in a future peacekeeping force because they had attacked Russian colleagues during Tbilisi's push to recapture breakaway South Ossetia.
"They can no longer remain. They brought shame upon themselves as peacekeepers. They committed crimes," he told a news conference.
In Georgia, Russian forces attacked positions in and around the town of Gori on Tuesday, killing at least five people, a Reuters correspondent said. There were isolated skirmishes along the front line but no major offensives by either side overnight.
Close U.S. ally Georgia entered a conflict with Russia last week after launching an offensive to retake the pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgian rule in 1992. Moscow responded with a huge counter-offensive.
Separatists in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia, west of the main war theatre, launched a push early on Tuesday to drive Georgian forces out of the Kodori Gorge -- the only area of the province under Georgian control.
"The operation to liberate Kodori Gorge has started," Abkhazia's self-styled foreign minister Sergei Shamba said. "Our troops are making advances. We are hoping for success."
Abkhazia insisted Russian troops were not involved.
Moscow's troops appeared to have largely stayed within the two separatist areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia overnight, calming fears they might push deep into Georgia and threaten President Mikheil Saakashvili's government.
Reuters correspondents in the road junction of Gori, on the main east-west highway across Georgia, said no Russian forces were in the largely deserted town, though Russian warplanes were bombing artillery positions around the town.
Georgian officials said on Monday evening that Moscow had seized Gori, cutting the country in half, and Russian troops were advancing on Tbilisi to overthrow Saakashvili's government.
U.S. President George W. Bush appeared to support that view, saying on Monday that Russia had invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatened a democratic government."
Lavrov said in response that Russia had no intention of overthrowing Saakashvili though he should resign because "he can no longer be our partner".
STRAINED RELATIONS WITH WEST
Bush told Moscow to end its military action and accept a peace agreement, saying its moves had jeopardised relations with the United States and Europe.
Further calming fears of a major Russian military offensive inside Georgia, Moscow's troops pulled back from Senaki, a Georgian town east of Abkhazia which they had briefly occupied on Monday, saying their military objectives had been achieved.
Georgia hosts an important pipeline carrying oil from the Caspian to the West and the fighting has unsettled oil markets, though the pipeline itself has not been touched by the conflict.
The war has alarmed investors in Russia, hitting the rouble and Russian stocks and has raised fears of a wider conflagration in the volatile region bordering Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Moscow had on Monday snubbed Georgia's declaration of a ceasefire, saying Tbilisi was continuing to fight and must first sign a pledge never to use force against South Ossetia again.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, taking a leading role in the crisis, has accused Georgia of starting the crisis and attacked the United States for backing Tbilisi.
Georgia called for a U.N. peacekeeping force to intervene to halt its conflict with Russia, and said on Monday evening its battered forces had retreated to defend the capital Tbilisi.
Saakashvili said Moscow should know Georgia will not quit. "Georgia will never surrender," he said on CNN.
Saakashvili said earlier he had agreed to a plan proposed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner under which hostilities would end, a mixed peacekeeping force would be deployed -- replacing the purely Russian one -- and troops would return to pre-conflict positions.
Kouchner was in Georgian on Monday before flying to Moscow for meetings on Tuesday before Sarkozy's arrival.
Russia says 1,600 South Ossetian civilians have been killed in the fighting and thousands are homeless but these figures have not been independently verified. Georgia has reported close to 200 killed and hundreds of wounded.
CNN airs misleading footage of South Ossetian city, Tskhinvali
Civilians perish as Georgian troops torch church
The Regnum news agency is reporting that Georgian troops burned down a 10th century Orthodox church while terrified civilians perished inside. The agency quotes eyewitness accounts of the atrocity after all-out fighting in Khetagurovo, a small village near the republic’s capital Tskhinvali.
Almost all of those fighting to defend the village were killed, but the report says the fate of others, mostly women and the elderly, turned out to be even more horrible.
Eyewitnesses report that Georgian tanks literally ran people down and that soldiers took almost all the women to another location. Their fate is still unknown.
Meanwhile, those who didn’t manage to escape found their shelter in a 10th century Orthodox church. Civilians hoped that Georgians of the same faith wouldn’t dare storm the building, one of the oldest of its kind in the country.
But Regnum reports that the Georgian troops set the church on fire and left those inside to perish.
It is the latest in a series of reports of the Georgian military attacking and killing civilians.
Le président russe annonce la fin des opérations militaires en Géorgie12/08/08 - 12.30pm (GMT +1.00)
10 h 50 : Le président russe Dmitri Medvedev a "pris la décision" d'arrêter l'opération russe "visant à contraindre la Géorgie à la paix", lors d'une rencontre avec le ministre de la défense russe, Anatoli Serdioukov, retransmise à la télévision. "Le but de l'opération est atteint", ajoute M. Medvedev, qui tempère toutefois son annonce, enjoignant les soldats russes de se défendre face aux éventuelles attaques géorgiennes : "Si vous deviez rencontrer un foyer de résistance [géorgien], ou faire face à des agressions, vous devriez alors les détruire", déclare-t-il au ministre de la défense. Le commandement de l'armée russe confirme que les forces russes ont arrêté leur progression en Géorgie, mais assure qu'elles resteront sur les positions qu'elles occupent actuellement. Au même moment, Nicolas Sarkozy, dont le pays assure la présidence tournante de l'Union européenne, commence à Moscou une tournée éclair de médiation auprès de la Russie et de la Géorgie.
10 h 45 : La réunion extraordinaire OTAN-Russie sur le conflit en cours en Géorgie prévue mardi est annulée "en raison de l'opposition des Américains", annonce le porte-parole du représentant permanent de la Russie auprès de l'OTAN, Dmitri Rogozine. Un peu plus tôt, la ministre des affaires étrangères géorgienne, Eka Tkeshelashvili, avait annulé sa venue à Bruxelles "à cause de la situation sur le terrain en Géorgie".
10 h 30 : Un journaliste géorgien qui couvrait le conflit pour l'hebdomadaire Russian Newsweek et son chauffeur ont été tués mardi par un obus qui a touché leur véhicule à Gori, selon un photographe de l'AFP présent sur les lieux. Et l'ambassadeur des Pays-Bas en Géorgie assure qu'un correspondant de la télévision néerlandaise RTL-2 a également été tué à Gori, dans la nuit de lundi à mardi, sans en donner l'identité. Ces morts portent à cinq le nombre de journalistes et collaborateurs de différents médias, tués depuis le début des combats en Ossétie du Sud, vendredi. Quatre autres auraient été blessés. Le siège de la télévision et de la radio locales de Gori ont été touchés par des bombardements, selon l'agence AP.
10 h 25 : La Russie ne cherche pas à faire tomber le président géorgien Mikheïl Saakachvili, mais considère que "ce serait mieux" s'il quittait le pouvoir, déclare le chef de la diplomatie russe, Sergueï Lavrov. "M. Saakachvili ne peut plus être notre partenaire", poursuit-il. "Je ne pense pas que la Russie ait l'intention non seulement de négocier mais même de s'entretenir avec [lui]. Il a commis des crimes contre nos citoyens".
10 h 15 : Une forte explosion a retenti mardi dans le centre de Tbilissi, la capitale géorgienne. Une explosion comparable avait été entendue dans la nuit de dimanche à lundi, provenant, selon des officiels géorgiens, d'un bombardement russe sur une cible située à cinq kilomètres de la capitale. "Nous avons aussi entendu l'explosion et essayons de déterminer ce qui s'est passé", a déclaré le secrétaire du Conseil de sécurité de Géorgie, Alexander Lomaia. Les autorités géorgiennes ont accusé mardi la Russie de continuer à bombarder le territoire géorgien.
10 heures : La télévision publique géorgienne annonce que la place centrale de la ville géorgienne de Gori, située à une quinzaine de kilomètres de la zone de conflit en Ossétie du Sud, a été bombardée mardi. Il y aurait plusieurs victimes et "les bâtiments de l'université de Gori [ainsi que de la poste centrale] sont en feu", selon le premier ministre, Lado Gourgenidze. "Plusieurs personnes ont été blessées et gisent sur le sol", constate également un reporteur de Reuters. L'endroit touché est situé près d'une zone de collines où les avions russes avaient déjà attaqué des positions d'artillerie géorgiennes. Reuters a dénombré quatre explosions dans les faubourgs de la ville mardi matin, sans pouvoir déterminer s'il s'agissait de bombardements aériens ou de tirs d'artillerie.
Beleaguered president: Gambler who risked his country and links with West
Tuesday, 12 August 2008
Wearing his trademark dark suit and red tie, Mikheil Saakashvili emerged on to the terrace of his new Presidential Palace into a humid Tbilisi afternoon yesterday to face the world's media. He spoke passionately about the need for the international community to respond to Russia's "invasion" of his country, but for a media-hungry man renowned for his charm and charisma, he looked fatigued and strained.
In many ways, his behaviour in the past week has been true to form. Mr Saakashvili has long been a political enigma. When he swept to power in the bloodless "rose revolution" of 2003, the West treated him like a messiah destined to bring freedom and democracy to his small Caucasus nation and spread it across the region.
Just as swiftly, he became enemy number one in the Kremlin, where he was hated as much as he was admired in the White House. While the West was delighted at the chain reaction of "coloured revolutions" that his coming to power triggered in the former Soviet space, the Russians were terrified. Regime change in Tbilisi has been on Vladimir Putin's to-do list since the day that Mr Saakashvili was sworn into office.
Mr Saakashvili, only 40 himself, employed a team of ministers whose age sometimes bordered on the ridiculous. Many key ministers have been in their 20s throughout his time in office. The young team made mistakes, but went about their job with a vigour and idealism unprecedented in the region.
But while Washington and Brussels were delighted to have a leader who wanted to open up to the West and spoke their language, doubts always remained that he may at times be a loose cannon. His language towards Russia has often been provocative, and he has a ruthless and impulsive streak revealed during the crushing of street protests last year.
Mr Saakashvili in recent days has looked like a man who bit off more than he could chew. It's still unclear who started this messy little war, with each side pointing accusing fingers at the other. Russia has clearlybeen spoiling for a fight, but it seems hard not to conclude that the vital hand in a very risky card game was played by Mr Saakashvili himself when he ordered a full-on assault of South Ossetia last Thursday night. He called Mr Putin's bluff, and Mr Putin, with some trademark harsh words, laid down a full house – not just repelling the Georgian assault on South Ossetia but launching attacks all over Georgia.
At yesterday's press conference, the President broke into a strangely inappropriate smile when asked about a "security incident" in Gori involving himself and the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, in which the two politicians were rushed back to their cars and driven away. One foreign diplomat has described him as "looking lost" recently.
Given the severity of Russia's assault on his country, it's not surprising. But he clearly made a huge miscalculation as to the level of Western support that would be forthcoming in the event of war. As world leaders visited Tbilisi over the past three years, he wooed one after another with his lofty ideals and persuasive charm. But it is clear that he is desperately disappointed that the international community's response has been limited to lukewarm verbal support.
Quite what he expects is unclear; the prospect of American or European troops heading into Tskhinvali to take on the Russians is unthinkable. But his calls for a robust international response to the Russians had a note of fear in them; and his exhortations have become desperate pleas to the people he thought were his friends and allies to help him out.
"Please wake up everybody," said the US-educated lawyer, in his fluent, lightly accented English. "And please make your position and speak with one united voice."
When he received The Independent at the same venue just 10 weeks ago, he made a similar call for the West to stand up against Russia. "The next step will be Russian jets bombing Tbilisi," he said. It was difficult not to smirk, given the outrageousness of the prospect. Over the last few days, however he has been proved right, though how much his own brinkmanship made this a self-fulfilling prophecy is hard to say.
Mr Saakashvili, who has been described by one of his advisers as a "media junkie", also made it clear yesterday how much he values Western opinion about his regime and his country, and how closely he follows the Western press.
"That's the last thing on my mind," he said, when I asked him how the situation was affecting him psychologically and politically. And then, as though he couldn't resist: "I like your articles. But The Independent had a footnote the other day saying that Stalin divided North and South Ossetia. It's not true. South Ossetia has always been Georgian."
He then went on to explain that Georgia wanted the return of all displaced persons to their homes in South Ossetia, and looked forward to their living together. But while his rhetoric on civil rights and the Georgian economy has been consistently impressive, Mr Saakashvili has historically been least convincing on his plans for the reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. His attempt to take back South Ossetia militarily, which he has ruled out on numerous occasions before, was a tacit admission that attempts to win the territory back by negotiations are futile.
For now, in a time of war, the Georgian people are swept up by patriotic fervour and standing behind their leader. But with military defeat in South Ossetia, and a Russian response that will scare away foreign investors for some time to come, when the dust settles, its first political victim could be Mr Saakashvili himself.
Profile of a president
Born: Tbilisi, Georgia, in December 1967. His father, Nikoloz, is a physician who still practises medicine in Tbilisi. His mother, Giuli Alasania, is a history lecturer at Tbilisi State University.
Educated: Studied in France and Ukraine, then completed a law degree at Columbia University before working for a New York law firm. As well as his native Georgian, he speaks fluent French, Ukranian, Russian and English.
Family: Married his Dutch wife, Sandra Roelofs, in Manhattan in 1993.
Path to power: Appointed justice minister by the then-president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, in 2000 but quit in protest at corruption and formed a new party. After elections in 2003, he led daily protests against the government which resulted in Shevardnadze's resignation and Georgia's parliament being stormed, culminating in the "rose revolution". In the 2004 presidential election, Mr Saakashvili won more than 96 per cent of the votes to become Europe's youngest president. He modelled himself on a medieval king, David the Builder, and pledged to restore Georgia's territorial integrity.
Analysis: US plays a shadowy hand in Georgian conflict
12/08/08 - 3.12pm (GMT +10)
By Dr Alexey Muraviev, strategic affairs analyst and Lecturer in International Relations and National Security at Curtin University of Technology.
Georgia’s geographical position makes it vital in a regional game of great power politics. The control of Georgia gives access to the oil and gas rich areas of the Caspian Sea and former Soviet Central Asia. It allows firming up control over the Turkish Straits, a critically important shipping point. And further, it reduces Russia and its influence in some critical areas such as the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
These considerations have driven the United States’ involvement in Georgia’s affairs, and the indirect assistance it has given to Georgia since hostilities commenced on Friday. What's known for a fact is that United States Air Forces (8 transport aircraft) assisted in redeployment of Georgia's 2,000 contingent from Iraq back to the country to take part in fighting. Reports suggest some were taken directly from the aircraft to the battleground. Further:
- US provides Georgia with open political and economic support (from what I know they have provided US$ 250,000 in immediate aid);
- The US military logistical support from Iraq included moving 11 tonnes of military cargo; and
- There are unconfirmed reports that US military instructors were involved in the initial assault on Tskhinvali.
That represents indirect military assistance and has not escaped Russia's attention. "It is a shame that some of our partners are not helping us but, essentially, are hindering us," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said.
Through this prism, the recent conflict in the Caucasus can not be seen as a war between Georgia and Russia. This is a conflict of two great powers over an area that is equally important to both of them.
This is how it unfolded. On the night before the opening of the Olympics in China, Georgian armed forces launched a massive artillery strike on its breakaway province of Southern Ossetia, particularly its regional centre Tskhinvali. After hours of intensive shelling, which also involved the use of 122-mm BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, Georgian Air Force executed several bombing raids in Tskhinvali and several other Ossetian settlements. Under cover of combat aircraft, several Georgian battalions reinforced with tanks raided villages and stormed the capital of Southern Ossetia. The battalion of Russian peacekeepers stationed in Tskhinvali was one of the first to come under intensive bombardment.
After just two days of this campaign, over 1,600 civilians were killed; an excess of 35,000 refugees fearing for their lives fled to Russia. Georgian forces were accused of multiple atrocities against non-combatants. The Russian response was swift and hard. Elements of the 58th Army based in Southern Russia crossed the border and advanced on Tskhinvali; Russian Air Force attacked Georgian positions and several targets across the country; the Russian Black Sea Fleet deployed a taskforce in the vicinity of Georgian coastline.
On Sunday 10 August, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili publicly declared a ceasefire and announced that his country was pulling forces back from a war zone. Despite these announcements, the Georgian military continued to shell Tskhinvali throughout Monday 11 August with no intention of reducing the level of fighting, let alone stopping it. Also, Georgian forces blew up a major water reservoir outside of Tskhinvali, flooding town basements where locals were seeking refuge from artillery shelling and aerial raids carried out by the Georgian military. Russian citizens in Georgia were denied the right to leave the country.
As well as the US interests at play in Georgia, many regional factors have led to the eruption of violence. After Georgia declared independence in 1991 its new leaders officially proclaimed a policy of nationalism (Georgia is for Georgians) as the new state ideology, thus triggering separatism in several enclaves largely populated by ethic minorities that do not comprise Georgian ethnos. Southern Ossetia was one of them. It intended to reconcile with its northern part (Northern Ossetia, which is part of Russia), and the socio-economic incentives (the standard of living in Russia is much higher than in Georgia) led to a situation when over 90% of South Ossetians were granted Russian citizenship. This fact alone gave the Russians a reason to intervene militarily.
However, Russia’s reaction can be explained not just by protecting its citizens and peacekeepers (Russia has received a mandate to run a peacekeeping operation in Abkhaziya and Southern Ossetia in 1992). Historically, Georgia and the Caucasus was one of Russia’s traditional spheres of interest and influence, not just economic and political but more importantly, cultural. Both the Georgians and Ossetians share the same faith as the Russians -- Christian Orthodoxy. These strong cultural ties explain Russia’s presence in the area: the nation acted as the guarantor and protector of the local Orthodox Christians against the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
These considerations brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power in November 2003 during the orchestrated “Revolution of Roses” (effectively a planned regime change). When you add Georgia's ambitions of joining NATO sooner rather than later and its close ties with the United States, you can start to understand Georgia’s actions in Southern Ossetia and the US reaction to Russia’s counter-attack.