Diplomats Wage Verbal War as Caucasian Conflict Flares Up

As UN diplomats engaged in acrimonious finger-pointing, the fighting in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia intensified with reports of Russia sinking a Georgian warship and attacking an airfield near Tbilisi.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Security Council in an open meeting on Sunday that Moscow was seeking "regime change in Tbilisi" and waging "a campaign of terror in Georgia."

He cited comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a confidential telephone conversation with his US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, suggesting that the president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili "must go."

Saakashvili had been campaigning to prevent the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia and has clashed with Russia's own interests in protecting Russian inhabitants in those two enclaves, which are de facto independent from Tbilisi.

"This is completely unacceptable and crosses the line," the US ambassador said. "Russia must affirm that its aim is not to change the democratically elected government of Georgia and that it accepts the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia."

Russia denies accusations

In Moscow, Larov later said his statements had been misinterpreted. He said although Russia holds Saakashvili responsible for crimes against Russian citizens, he did not want the leader to step down, but only for Georgian troops to leave South Ossetia.

Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, meanwhile branded "completely unacceptable" US claims that the Russian military in Georgia has waged a campaign of "terror."

"This is completely unacceptable, especially from the lips of a representative of a country whose actions we are aware of in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia," he responded in a heated debate reminiscent of the Cold War.

Churkin said Russia's action in South Osssetia was "appropriate" as it "could not allow Georgian attacks on civilians and Russian peacekeepers" in the separatist enclave which he claimed amounted to "genocide."

Fighting continues

After nearly four days of fighting between Georgian and Russian troops, Russian troops were in control of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali Sunday, as the Georgian government announced a unilateral ceasefire.

Even as the withdrawal of Georgian forces from Tskhinvali was confirmed by the Russian military, there were reports of continued fighting including an attack by Russian jets on Tbilisi's airport.

The Defense Ministry in Moscow however denied the allegations, saying the reports of an attack were "a provocation with the aim of deceiving the international community."

Media reported that an airfield near the capital's airport was smoking after the attack described as one of the most daring across Georgia since fighting broke out.

At the same time, the Russian navy reported on Sunday sinking a Georgian warship that fired upon its Black Sea Fleet.

Russia has accused Georgia of not sticking to its unilateral offer of a ceasefire, the Russian Defense Ministry was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency.

No contact

British Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Karen Pierce, said she understood that Saakashvili had tried to contact Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for several hours to no avail.

"If leaders are not prepared to talk to each other, it's hard to see how peace efforts can move forward," Pierce said.

She said, based on reports of military activities in Georgia, that Russia appeared to have made "grave violation" of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"Russian forces have certainly violated respect for international norms of peacekeeping and it is a grotesque distortion by Russia to claim that their actions are promoting peace," Pierce said.

"Those actions have gone beyond any reasonable proportionate response," she said.

UN Deadlocked

The Security Council has held four meetings since the conflict erupted in Georgia, but has not been able to formulate a common position to deal with the situation.

Russia has rejected so far a ceasefire with Georgia and has said it would veto any call by the 15-nation council.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned Sunday that fighting in Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia could be "dangerously destabilizing" to the region following reports that the territory was mobilizing for a military operation.

[Source: Deutsche Welle, Georgia, 11Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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