Georgian army flees in disarray as Russians advance

Georgia’s army was in complete disarray tonight after troops and tanks fled the city of Gori in panic and abandoned it to the Russians without firing a shot.

As Russian armoured columns rolled deep into central and western Georgia, seizing several towns and a military base, President Saakashvili said his country had been cut in half.

For the first time since the crisis erupted last Thursday, Russia admitted that its troops had moved out of Abkhazia, the other breakaway region under Moscow’s protection, and seized the town of Senaki in Georgia proper. Russian officials again insisting that they had no intention of occupying territory beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgia said the Russian army was also in charge of the towns of Zugdidi and Kurga in the west and its tanks appeared to moving from the north and the west towards Tbilisi, the capital.

The retreat from Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, was as humiliating as it was sudden and dramatic. The Times witnessed scores of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, laden with soldiers, speeding through the city away from what Georgian officials claimed was an imminent Russian invasion.

Residents watched in horror as their army abandoned its positions after a day of increasingly aggressive exchanges of fire along the border with South Ossetia, the breakaway region now fully under Russian control.

Jeeps and pick-up trucks filled with Georgian soldiers raced through the streets, their occupants frantically signalling to civilians that they too should flee. The road out of Gori towards Tbilisi was a scene of chaos and fear as cars jockeyed with tanks for a speedy escape.

Soldiers were leaving by any means available — dozens of troops clung to cars on the back of a transporter lorry, while five other soldiers were fleeing on a single quad bike.

A tank had exploded on the mountain road leaving Gori, though it was unclear what had caused the incident. The Times passed an armoured car in flames, soldiers leaping from the roof of the vehicle, which had apparently caught fire while trying to bulldoze the tank’s burning shell out of the way.

Columns of Georgian tanks and heavy weaponry filled the road during the 50-mile journey back to Tbilisi as thousands of soldiers, many looking totally demoralised, headed for the capital. Police sealed off the highway from Tbilisi, turning back the very few cars that ventured towards Gori.

It was unclear tonight where the tanks were heading, but many of the troops regrouped on the outskirts of Tbilisi as if preparing to make a stand to defend the capital. Some artillery pieces had also been sited on the approach road from Gori.

The panic had been triggered at about 5pm, when troops suddenly started pouring out of Gori. Frantic officials from Georgia’s Ministry of Interior claimed that up to 7,000 Russian troops with tanks were heading for the city and claimed it was under imminent threat of bombardment.

A similar panic had ensued on Sunday night as thousands of people poured from the city, in what turned out to be false alarm. The fear this time was more tangible, the sense of threat more real as Gori’s streets emptied rapidly.

Not everyone was prepared to leave, however. One man told The Times: "This is my city, I will never leave it even if the Russians come here and kill me. Why should I go to Tbilisi and wait for them there?"

The Georgian government, which is appealing for international support, claimed later that Russian troops had entered Gori, though there was no independent confirmation of this.

As the noose appeared to tighten around Tbilisi, the State Department evacuated more than 170 US citizens. Poland and several other former Soviet satellites voiced fears that the fighting signalled Russia's willingness to use force to regain its dominance of the region.

Even at the height of chaos, Georgia’s legendary hospitality never faltered. A 70-year-old woman named Eteri retreated into her home and appeared moments later to offer apples from her garden to guests.

"I am not afraid," she said. "We have lived with the Russians for a hundred years so why do we need this war now? I don’t want to be with America, I think we should live peacefully with the Russians."

[Source: The Times, London, 11Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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