Russia and Georgia accuse each other of 'ethnic cleansing'

Russian FM: Over 1,500 killed, death toll continuing to rise; UNSC holds emergency sessions as Russian forces bomb Georgian targets.

Georgia burning 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Georgia burning 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Russia and Georgia accused each other of "ethnic cleansing" as the UN Security Council met in two tense emergency sessions Friday to head off all-out war between Russia, Georgia and the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia. The last-ditch negotiations came just 12 hours apart in response to Georgian troops launching a major military offensive to regain control of separatist South Ossetia. The first meeting lasted three hours, ending at 2 a.m. Friday in New York, and the second session broke off in a stalemate Friday night. Council members planned to pick up the negotiations and possibly meet again for a third time over the weekend. Just hours after Russia called that first meeting and failed to win backing for its proposed council statement that Georgia and South Ossetia should "renounce the use of force," Russian tanks rumbled into Georgia in a furious response. The 15-nation council met again Friday afternoon at the request of Georgia's ambassador, Irakli Alasania, who cited in a letter the urgent need to protect the "threatened independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia." Alasania said his nation was ready to accept an immediate cease-fire. Turning to Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Alasania demanded: "Are you ready to stop the fighter jets who are in the air? ... They're about to bomb the civilian population. What are we going to do?" The second meeting focused on a Belgian-drafted proposal that would have had the council call for "the immediate restoration of the status quo ante before violence erupted and cessation of hostilities." Belgium holds the security council presidency this month. Churkin and Alasania heatedly accused each other's nations of "ethnic cleansing" at the later meeting. Churkin noted that "there are reports about ethnic cleansing in villages of South Ossetia. The population is panicking, and the number of refugees is increasing... a humanitarian catastrophe is in the offing. And here Tbilisi is using the tactic of scorched earth." Alasania countered that "it is the Russian Federation who really was supporting and is supporting militarily the regime in Tskhinvali and Sukhumi who are the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing." That angered Churkin, who said ethnic cleansing was a "quite clear" term for what Georgia was doing. "How else can we describe this when over this day, practically these 7,000 people who are living in these towns are being destroyed?" he said. "How can you unleash this kind of slaughter, this carnage?" Alasania replied that it was the Russian president's "decisions to legitimize the separatists' regimes who were perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing, this is very concerning." Intense fighting reportedly raged for a second night in South Ossetia on Saturday and Georgia's interior ministry reported air attacks on three military bases and key facilities for shipping oil to the West. Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said the Vaziani military base on the outskirts of the Georgian capital was bombed by warplanes during the night and that bombs fell in the area of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. He also said two other Georgian military bases were hit and that warplanes bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizable oil shipment facility. Utiashvili said there apparently were significant casualties and damage in the attacks, but that further details would not be known until the morning. Russia dispatched an armored column into South Ossetia on Friday after Georgia, a staunch US ally, launched a surprise offensive to crush separatists. Witnesses said hundreds of civilians were killed. The fighting, which devastated the capital of Tskhinvali, threatened to ignite a wider war between Georgia and Russia, and escalate tensions between Moscow and Washington. Georgia said it was forced to launch the assault because of rebel attacks; the separatists alleged Georgia violated a cease-fire. MP Lasha Zhvania, chairman of the Georgian parliament's foreign relations committee, has claimed that the Russian military invaded Georgian airspace several times and bombed Gori, a city in central Georgia. According to Zhvania, a former ambassador to Israel, there have been "provocations" from the Russian side for "some time." "We don't wish a war, but we have to prevent military actions that endanger our citizens," he told The Jerusalem Post. He called on the West to "use all diplomatic means to prevent a Russian occupation of Georgia." Zhvania called the South Ossetian "government" a "non-recognized terror organization." "We fight terror groups who make trouble and endanger our citizens on Georgian territory," he said. The Interfax news agency cited the commander of Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, Marat Kulakhmetov, as saying Georgian artillery fired on Tskhinvali heavily early Saturday, but stopped around 2:30 a.m. "I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars," said Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, who had fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia. "It's impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged." The fighting broke out as much of the world's attention was focused on the start of the Olympic Games and many leaders, including Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and US President George W. Bush, were in Beijing. The timing suggested Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili may have been counting on surprise to fulfill his longtime pledge to wrest back control of South Ossetia - a key to his hold on power. The rebels seek to unite with North Ossetia, which is part of Russia. Saakashvili agreed the timing was not coincidental, but accused Russia of being the aggressor. "Most decision makers have gone for the holidays," he told CNN. "Brilliant moment to attack a small country." The leader of South Ossetia's rebel government, Eduard Kokoity, said about 1,400 people were killed in the onslaught, the Interfax news agency reported. This toll was confirmed by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a press conference on Saturday. Lavrov added that the toll continued to rise. Saakashvili said "Georgian military forces completely control all the territory of South Ossetia" except for a northern section adjacent to Russia. But Russian news agencies cited a Russian military official as saying heavy fighting was under way on the outskirts of the regional capital. It was unclear what might persuade either side to stop shooting. Both claim the battle started after the other side violated a cease-fire that had been declared just hours earlier after a week of sporadic clashes. It was the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. Russian troops went in as peacekeepers but Georgia alleges they now back the separatists. Georgia, which borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership - a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its influence in the region. Saakashvili long has pledged to restore Tbilisi's rule over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia. Both regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and have built up ties with Moscow. Georgia's Foreign Ministry accused Russian aircraft of bombing two military air bases inside Georgia, inflicting some casualties and destroying several military aircraft. Rustavi 2 television said four people were killed and five wounded at the Marneuli air base. Twelve Russian troops were killed and 30 wounded in the fighting, said Russian Ground Forces spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov. Saakashvili said late Friday that about 30 Georgians had been killed "mainly members of the Georgian armed forces." Russia's Defense Ministry said it was sending in reinforcements for its troops in the province, and Russian state television and Georgian officials reported a convoy of tanks had crossed the border. The convoy was expected to reach the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, by evening, Channel One television said. "We are facing Russian aggression," said Georgia's Security Council chief Kakha Lomaya. "They have sent in their troops and weapons and they are bombing our towns." Putin warned in the early stages of the conflict that the Georgian attack would draw retaliation and the Defense Ministry pledged to protect South Ossetians, most of whom have Russian citizenship. Chairing a session of his Security Council in the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also vowed that Moscow will protect Russian citizens. "In accordance with the constitution and federal law, I, as president of Russia, am obliged to protect lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located," Medvedev said. "We won't allow the death of our compatriots go unpunished." On Friday, an AP reporter saw tanks and other heavy weapons concentrating on the Russian side of the border with South Ossetia - supporting the reports of an incursion. Some villagers were fleeing into Russia. The Georgian state minister for reintegration, Temur Yakobashvili, said Georgian forces had shot down four Russian combat planes over Georgian territory but gave no details. Russia's Defense Ministry denied an earlier Georgia report about one Russian plane downed and had no immediate comment on the latest claim. Yakobashvili said one Russian plane had dropped a bomb on the Vaziani military base near the Georgian capital, but no one was hurt. More than 1,000 US Marines and soldiers were at the base last month to teach combat skills to Georgian troops. South Ossetia officials said Georgia attacked with aircraft, armor and heavy artillery. Georgian troops fired missiles at Tskhinvali, an official said, and many buildings were on fire. Georgia's president said Russian aircraft bombed several Georgian villages and other civilian facilities. A senior Russian diplomat in charge of the South Ossetian conflict, Yuri Popov, dismissed the Georgian claims of Russian bombings as misinformation, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported. Haviv Rettig contributed to this report.