Russian Ground Forces Assault Vital Georgian City

Russian tanks and troops moved through the separatist enclave of South Ossetia and advanced on the city of Gori in central Georgia on Sunday night, for the first time directly assaulting a Georgian city with ground forces after three days of heavy fighting, Georgian officials said.

Georgian tanks were dug into positions outside Gori and planning to defend the city, said Shota Utiashvili, an official in Georgia’s interior ministry. He said the city of Gori was coming under artillery and tank fire. There was no immediate comment from Russia.

A senior Western diplomat said it was unclear whether Russia intended a full invasion of Georgia. “They seem to have gone beyond the logical stopping point” to retake the separatist regions, he said.

The Bush administration said Sunday that it would seek a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russian military actions in Georgia. And in a heated exchange with his Russian counterpart at the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, accused the Kremlin of seeking to oust Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

A column of Russian forces was also seeking Sunday night to enter Georgian territory from Abkhazia, another separatist enclave to the west, and Abkhaz fighters were massed at the boundary line, an Abkhaz official said in an interview.

The advance appeared to answer the question on which the conflict had been pivoting: Would Russia simply occupy the two separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or would it push into Georgia, raising the possibility of a full-scale invasion?

Gori, about a 45-minute drive south from the capital of South Ossetia, Tskinvali, sits in a valley that is the main route connecting the east and west halves of Georgia.

Mr. Utiashvili said the Russians were “trying to cut the country in half.” He said that if they tried to occupy Georgia, “there will probably be guerilla warfare all over the country.”

In Washington, American officials reacted with deepening alarm to Russia’s military activities on Sunday. Georgian troops had tried to disengage, but the Russians had not allowed them.

“The Georgians told them, ‘We’re done. Let us withdraw,” one American military official said. “But the Russians are not letting them withdraw. They are pursuing them, and people are seeing this.”

The official said that it appeared that the Kremlin’s objectives, at a minimum, had extended beyond securing the enclaves and now included the destruction of the Georgian armed forces, with an aim of intensifying the domestic pressure on Saakashvili.

“The Russians have gained all of their military objectives,” the American official said. “This is not about military objectives. This is about a political objective — removing a thorn in their side.”

Russia had also doubled the number of its troops in Abkhazia to about 6,000, and Russian warships from the Black Sea fleet were off the territory’s coast. A column of Russian tanks was negotiating with Georgian officials to enter the Georgian city of Zugdidi, just south of Abkhazia, the Abkhaz official said.

Russia also bombed the Tblisi international airport shortly before Bernard Kouchner was due to arrive to mediate on behalf of the European Union. Only light damage was reported.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked through the night Saturday with other Bush administration officials on a Security Council resolution. American diplomats said that they did not want an actual Security Council vote on the resolution until Tuesday or so, the better to draw out the debate and publicly shame the Russian government. While the resolution will carry no punitive weight, and is almost sure to be vetoed by Russia, a permanent Council member, the hope is that it could create more pressure for a cease-fire, officials said.

Meanwhile, Georgian and Western diplomatic officials said that Georgia had offered a cease-fire proposal to Russia, though Russian officials did not acknowledge receiving such an offer.

A senior American official said that the United States had conveyed the details of a cease-fire proposal by President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia to Russia’s acting ambassador in Washington late Saturday night, and that there briefly were indications that the Kremlin wanted to talk directly with the Georgian president.

“At midnight last night we got from the Russians that they would welcome a call from Saakashvili,” the official said.

But the day passed, and through Sunday night in Georgia, the Kremlin had not taken Mr. Saakashvili’s call and negotiations had not proceeded, an advisor to Georgia’s president said.

“He has asked to talk with Putin, and he has asked to talk to Medvedev,” he said, of Saakashvili. “But they have refused.”

The American official also said that Georgia had managed on Sunday to provide its cease-fire proposals to Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, but there was no reply.

Mr. Kramer reported from Tbilisi and Ms. Barnard from Moscow. Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow; Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia; and Helene Cooper from Washington.

[Source: By Anne Barnard, NYT, Tbilisi, 10Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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