Russian blitz on Georgia continues

Jets hit radar on outskirts of Georgian capital, bomb airfield, target Black Sea port of Poti; Georgia rejects ultimatum to disarm in Abkhazia.

Russian bomber 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Russian bomber 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Swarms of Russian jets launched new raids on Georgian territory Monday while Russian officials accused Georgia of violating its pledge to observe a cease-fire around the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Georgia rejected an ultimatum issued by a Russian general in Abkhazia, the other breakaway province, to Georgian forces nearby to disarm or face Russian troops moving into Georgian-controlled territory. It marks a major escalation in the Russian-Georgian conflict. With most Georgian forces concentrated near South Ossetia, it could be hard for Georgia to repel the Abkhazian offensive. International envoys flew into the region late Sunday in an effort to end the conflict before it spreads throughout the Caucasus. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, representing the European Union, says he met with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and found him "determined to make peace." Russian jets hit a radar on the outskirts of the Georgian capital, bombed an airfield and also targeted the Black Sea port of Poti, inflicting no casualties, Georgian officials said. Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said that up to 50 Russian jets were roaming Georgian skies all at once as of Monday morning. Russian officials said the air raids targeted supply lines and military facilities and were not directed at civilians, but one Russian raid on the town of Gori killed over 20 and wounded scores of others Saturday. Lomaia said Gen. Sergei Chaban in charge of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia conveyed the Russian ultimatum for Georgia to disarm via U.N. military observers in the area. Abkhazia's Russian-supported separatist government called out the army and reservists on Sunday and declared it would push Georgian forces out of the northern part of the Kodori Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian control. Separatist Abkhazia forces also were concentrating on the border near Georgia's Zugdidi region. Chaban said 9,000 additional Russian troops and 350 armored vehicles had arrived in Abkhazia to support Russian peacekeepers there, Russian news reports said. He said Russian forces were also preparing to help disarm Georgian forces in the northern part of the gorge. Georgia's Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said that Russian tanks attempted to advance in the direction of the town of Gori outside South Ossetia, but were turned back by Georgian forces. The town of 50,000, which sits on Georgia's only significant east-west highway, has come under Russian strikes in the previous days. Georgia began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia overnight Friday with heavy rocket and artillery fire and air strikes that ravaged the provincial capital, Tskhinvali. Russia, which has developed close ties with the region and granted passports to most of its residents, sent in thousands of troops who launched overwhelming artillery barrage and air attacks on Georgian troops. Heavy Russian shelling drove the Georgian forces out of the provincial capital of Tskhinvali on Sunday. Saakashvili declared a cease-fire around South Ossetia on Sunday, but Russian officials said Monday that Georgian forces were not observing it. Russian Maj.-Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov said that Georgian forces continued shelling Russian positions overnight and conducted a bombing run in the area. Russian Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said Russian ships deployed to Georgia's Black Sea coast on Sunday sank one of four Georgian patrol boats that dangerously approached them and refused to stop, and turned the others back. Georgian Coast Guard chief David Golua dismissed the Russian claim. US President George W. Bush on Monday sharply criticized Moscow's military crackdown on Georgia, saying the violence is unacceptable and Russia's response is disproportionate. "I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia," Bush said in an interview with NBC Sports. The violence appeared to show Russian determination to subdue small, US-backed Georgia, even at the risk of international reproach. Russia fended off a wave of international calls to observe Georgia's cease-fire, saying it must first be assured that Georgian forces pull out of the region. "We know they haven't left and are continuing to shoot at our peacekeepers," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said during Sunday's debates at the U.N. Security Council. The council met for the fourth time in four days to discuss the crisis; US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accused Moscow of seeking "regime change" in Georgia and resisting attempts to make peace. Churkin said Russians don't use the expression, but acknowledged there were occasions when elected leaders "become an obstacle." 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 the city said hundreds were killed. Moscow accused Saakashvili of breaking his own truce hours after he announced it and launching a rocket and artillery barrage on civilians and Russian peacekeepers in the province. Russian leaders accused Georgians of genocide against South Ossetians and vowed to bring those responsible to justice. Georgia said it launched the attack on South Ossetia in response to separatists firing at Georgian villages, and accused Russia of aggression. Russian jets raided Georgian air bases, communications lines and other facilities, including the areas near key Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which carries Caspian crude to the West. No supply interruptions have been reported. Georgia said it has shot down 10 Russian planes, but Russia acknowledged the loss of only two. Saakashvili said one of the Russian raids on the Tbilisi airport area came a half hour before the arrival of the foreign ministers of France and Finland - in the country to try to mediate. Other Georgian officials said, however, the airport had not been hit. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the hostilities in South Ossetia "massacres," hours before he and Finnish counterpart Alexander Stubb left for Tbilisi and a meeting with Saakashvili. South Ossetia broke away from Georgian control in 1992. Russia granted passports to most of its residents, and the region's separatist leaders sought absorption of the region into Russia. Thousands of civilians have fled South Ossetia - many seeking 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 of the fighting. "The Georgians say it is their land. Where is our land, then?" 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 South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s. Both separatist provinces have close ties with Moscow, while Georgia has deeply angered Russia by wanting to join NATO. The US military began flying 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq after Georgia recalled them, even while calling for a truce.