'Russia is moving in on Tbilisi'

Georgian official to 'Post': Military has orders to hold off attack for as long as possible.

Russian bomber 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Russian bomber 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Russian forces are moving in on the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, and the Georgian military has received orders to gather en masse around the capital and hold off the attack for as long as possible, Georgia's chargés d'affaires, Vladimir Konstantinidi, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday night. "The Russians took control of [the strategic city of] Gori, which is west of the capital, Tbilisi. It's the same distance as from Haifa to Tel Aviv," Konstantinidi said. "They've started moving towards the capital because that is their main target. So our forces are concentrating around a town [between Gori and Tbilisi]. They have to try and hold the Russians off for at least a while," he added. Asked if he believed this to be a realistic goal, Konstantinidi said, "I don't think anything. I hope that we will succeed." He said it was becoming apparent that the entire conflict had been "planned by Russia a long time ago." "Now we can see that this was not a response to defend the separatist region of South Ossetia. This was actually a plan of aggression which has been prepared for years and over the last few months especially. It began with a provocation and is continuing into this war," he said. "We're waiting for more action from our friends all over the world." Some foreign ministers and officials are attempting to plan visits to Georgia in order to raise support for the independent country but Constantinidi said, "we are waiting for more assertive actions from the international community." Despite continued calls for calm from the United States and other Western powers, Russia rejected a cease-fire with Georgia Monday after reportedly capturing Gori. Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili told a national security meeting on Monday night that Russian troops had effectively sliced his country in half. "[Russian forces] came to the central route and cut off connections between western and eastern Georgia," he said. Russia denied seizing Gori and effectively cutting the country in half (since the city straddles Georgia's only significant east-west highway) according to the Russian news agency Interfax. But the ongoing hostilities threatened to widen the conflict, which Georgian leaders warn augers a Russian attempt to take over the country, even as Western powers are urging international mediation and respect for Georgia's territorial integrity. Fighting also raged Monday around Tskhinvali, the capital of the separatist province of South Ossetia. Swarms of Russian warplanes also launched new air raids across Georgia, with at least one sending screaming civilians running for cover. The two-front battlefield was a major escalation in the conflict that blew up late Thursday after a Georgian offensive to regain control of the separatist province of South Ossetia. Even as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili signed a cease-fire pledge Monday with EU mediators, Russia flexed its military muscle and appeared determined to subdue the small US ally which has been pressing for NATO membership. On Monday afternoon, Russian troops invaded Georgia from the western separatist province of Abkhazia while most Georgian forces were busy with fighting in the central region around South Ossetia. The conflict is severely straining relations between Russia and the West, as Washington and Moscow have traded barbs while the situation on the ground intensifies. At Georgia's request, the UN Security Council called an emergency session for later Monday - the fifth meeting on the fighting in as many days. Meanwhile, the US helped the 2,000 or so Georgian forces deployed in Iraq to return home, eliciting an angry reaction for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who said the move wouldn't help resolve the situation. "Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shi'ite villages," Putin said in Moscow. "And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed ten Ossetian villages at once, who ran [over] elderly people and children with tanks, who burned civilians alive in their sheds - these leaders must be taken under protection." The US has criticized such rhetoric from Putin for inflaming and feeding the conflict. The administration has also condemned the type and breadth of force employed by the Kremlin - including ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and raids into areas the US says are far from the provinces in contention. "I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia, and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia," Bush told NBC Sports in an interview Sunday. Still, the US is continuing to emphasize diplomatic engagement, with a State Department official saying Monday that, "The United States is responding to Georgia's humanitarian and reconstruction needs and is prepared to provide assistance as needed." US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts in the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations spoke by telephone Monday and affirmed their support for a diplomatic solution, urging Russia to agree to international mediation and respect Georgian territorial integrity and condemning the loss of civilian life. But Russba expert Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, assessed that Western diplomatic engagement will yield little. "Russia is beyond the point of no return. The US and European diplomatic entreaties failed. Russian delivered a slap in the face to [EU President] Nicolas Sarkozy and President Bush. Now it has created a new geopolitical reality between the Black Sea and the Caspian," he said. "It will be extremely difficult to dislodge" Russia. He said the Kremlin's aim is to establish control of the oil and gas resources in the region and that it would not be responsive to diplomatic pressure, while the US and other Western powers had not indicated a willingness to use military force to oppose Putin. Georgians have expressed criticism of the US and its Western allies for not doing more to help, given Georgia's strategic decision to ally itself with the West and seek membership in NATO in the face of Russian displeasure. But US senior officials indicated that the US had cautioned Georgia against provoking armed conflict with Russia, despite the long-simmering territorial dispute and what it sees as Russian violations. "President Saakashvili miscalculated and walked into a trap that the Russian president set for him," Cohen assessed. "We [the US] were warning Georgia that we did not want a military confrontation between Georgia and Russia. Now we can see why." Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Both the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s - and both have close ties with Moscow. Georgia began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia late Thursday with heavy shelling and air strikes that ravaged South Osseita's provincial capital of Tskhinvali. The Russia response was swift and overpowering - thousands of troops that shelled the Georgians until they fled Tskhinvali on Sunday, and four days of bombing raids across Georgia. Yet Georgia's pledge of a cease-fire rang hollow Monday. An AP reporter saw a small group of Georgian fighters open fire on a column of Russian and Ossetian military vehicles outside Tskhinvali, triggering a 30-minute battle. The Russians later said all the Georgians were killed. Another AP reporter was in the village of Tkviavi, 12 kilometers south of Tskhinvali inside Georgia, when a bomb from a Russian Sukhoi warplane struck a house. The walls of neighboring buildings fell as screaming residents ran for cover. Eighteen people were wounded, six of them seriously. Georgian artillery fire was heard coming from fields about 200 meters away from the village, perhaps the bomber's target. Hundreds of Georgian troops headed north Monday along the road toward Tskhinvali, pocked with tank regiments creeping up the highway into South Ossetia. Hundreds of other soldiers traveled via trucks in the opposite direction, towing light artillery weapons. Saakashvili signed a cease-fire pledge Monday proposed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Finnish counterpart, Alexander Stubb. The EU envoys headed to Moscow to try to persuade Russia to accept the cease-fire. Saakashvili, however, voiced concern that Russia's true goal was to undermine his pro-Western government. "It's all about the independence and democracy of Georgia," he said. Saakashvili said Russia had sent 20,000 troops and 500 tanks into Georgia. He said Russian warplanes were bombing roads and bridges, destroying radar systems and targeting Tbilisi's civilian airport. One Russian bombing raid struck the Tbilisi airport area only a half hour before the EU envoys arrived, he said. Another hit near key Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which carries Caspian crude to the West. No supply interruptions have been reported. Abkhazia's separatists declared Sunday they would push Georgian forces out of the northern part of the Kodori Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian control. Before invading western Georgia, Russia's deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn demanded Monday that Georgia disarm its police in Zugdidi, a town just outside Abkhazia. Still, he insisted, "we are not planning any offensive." At least 9,000 Russian troops and 350 armored vehicles were in Abkhazia, according to a Russian military commander. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said more than 2,000 people had been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, most of them Ossetians with Russian passports. The figures could not be independently confirmed, but refugees who fled Tskhinvali over the weekend said hundreds had been killed. Many found shelter in the Russian province of North Ossetia. "The Georgians burned all of our homes," said one elderly woman, as she sat on a bench under a tree with three other white-haired survivors. "The Georgians say it is their land. Where is our land, then?"