Russian troops invade Georgia and 'take the city of Gori'

Georgia today claimed that Russian forces had overrun the strategic city of Gori as troops prepared to defend the capital Tbilisi from what one official called a "total onslaught".

Georgian soldiers fled Gori, 17 miles from the border with rebel South Ossetia, in panic and disarray, clinging to the sides of cars and vehicles as they sped out of town. A Georgian armoured personnel carrier was in flames on the street, a victim of an apparent sudden rout.

Alexander Lomaia, secretary of the Georgian security council, said that the Georgian army had been told instead to concentrate its efforts on holding Mtskheta, 15 miles from the capital.

"Russian forces are occupying Gori. Georgian armed forces received an order to leave Gori and to fortify positions near Mtskheta to defend the capital. This is a total onslaught," Mr Lomaia said.

Just hours before the retreat Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and France’s foreign minister Bernard Kouchner had been forced to dive for cover in Gori when an unidentified helicopter flew overhead.

Georgia was facing a Russian push on two fronts as as the Kremlin continued to ignore international pressure for a ceasefire five days into the conflict.

In the west, Russian troops entered Georgia from the breakaway region of Abkhazia on the Black Sea, while in the north, intense shelling continued in and around South Ossetia.

Moscow confirmed that its soldiers had swept from Abkhazia into the town of Senaki, 40 km inside Georgia. The Defence Ministry in Moscow claimed that the raid on Senaki was intended to prevent Georgian troops from regrouping for "new attacks on South Ossetia".

The admission marked a dangerous new phase in the conflict as Russia advanced into Georgian territory with no indication of when its offensive might cease, despite a claim from President Medvedev that much of the operation was complete.

President Saakashvili told Georgians in a televised address that Russia was attempting to occupy the whole country. He said: "This provocation was aimed at occupying South Ossetia, Abkhazia and then all of Georgia."

He claimed that Russian tanks were rampaging through the countryside while Russian troops were carrying out summary killings and human rights abuses.

In the hours before the claimed fall of Gori, The Times witnessed Russian MiG fighter jets bombing Georgian positions about 9 km from the border with South Ossetia, and there were sustained exchanges of artillery fire.

Soldiers on the ground claimed that Russian and South Ossetian forces had established artillery positions inside the border on the Georgian side. Georgian tanks and heavy weaponry ringed the outskirts of Gori in anticipation of a Russian advance.

The prospects for a negotiated ceasefire were dealt a blow when Russia's ambassador to Nato declared that Mr Saakashvili "is no longer a man that we can deal with". Dmitri Rogozin said: "He must be punished for breaching international law. He is responsible for many war crimes."

President Sarkozy of France is preparing to fly to Georgia and Russia tomorrow on a peace mission, following a round of shuttle diplomacy by his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who is due in Moscow tonight carrying a draft ceasefire proposal signed by Mr Saakashvili.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, said that Russia would continue its military operation until "its logical end".

He hit out at the United States in particular for transporting 800 Georgian soldiers from Iraq, some of whom were deployed in Gori.

Russia warned the West that "the Georgian side was preparing aggression," said Mr Putin. "Nobody was listening. And this is the result. We have finally come to it. However, Russia will of course carry out its peacekeeping mission to its logical end."

Russia's incursion into Georgian territory follows a rapid troop build up, as thousands of Russian troops have poured into Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Nato's Secretary-General today criticised Russia over its "disproportionate" use of force. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was "seriously concerned" about Russia's response and its "lack of respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia," a spokesperson said.

The statement followed President Bush's comments in Beijing, where he was watching the Olympics. He said he had spoken "firmly" to Mr Putin, who was directing the Kremlin's actions in Georgia.

Gordon Brown today made his first direct comments on the crisis, saying there was "no justification" for Russia’s military action in Georgia, and that there was a "clear responsibility" on Moscow to agree a ceasefire and bring a swift end to the conflict which threatened a "humanitarian catastrophe".

[Source: The Times, London, UK, 11Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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