Monday, August 11, 2008

Russia Advances Into Georgia as Sarkozy Seeks Peace (Update3)

By Henry Meyer and Paul Abelsky

Aug. 12 (Bloomberg) -- With Russia's superior army overwhelming parts of Georgia, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will fly to Moscow today to try to persuade the government to end its first foreign offensive since the Cold War.

Sarkozy's trip, on behalf of the European Union as its president, comes a day after President George W. Bush said Russia may be trying to overthrow Georgia's Western-backed government and called on Russia to withdraw its troops.

The French president is scheduled to meet with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in the Kremlin today. The two will discuss a French peace plan that Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili signed yesterday as Russian troops moved further into Georgia and casualties mounted outside the breakaway regions that sparked the war.

France will circulate a draft United Nations Security Council resolution shortly, calling for an ``immediate and unconditional cessation of all hostilities.''

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said his government won't support the draft, calling it ``premature'' in light of continuing diplomatic efforts and Russia's own military goals in South Ossetia and the other separatist region, Abkhazia.

Civilians Killed

At least 1,600 civilians in South Ossetia have died since fighting erupted Aug. 8, Russian officials said. Georgia said Russian troops yesterday began a ground offensive, prompting the former Soviet republic's army to retreat toward Tbilisi.

Fighting spread over the weekend to Abkhazia. Russia has sent 9,000 soldiers there in addition to a 3,000-strong peacekeeping force on the ground.

Russian artillery rolled deep into western Georgia yesterday and took several towns and a military base, as other forces captured Gori, the Associated Press reported from the central city.

The military thrust threatens to draw the U.S. into confrontation with Russia, its Cold War foe. Bush backs Georgia's bid to join NATO, which Russia views as a security threat. The West views Georgia as a key ally in the region, in part because it has an oil pipeline bypassing Russia.

``It now appears that an effort may be under way to depose Georgia's duly elected government,'' Bush said in a statement at the White House yesterday.

Peacekeeping Force

The French plan seeks to restore a mixed Russian-Georgian peacekeeping force in South Ossetia with a ``strong'' presence by the 56-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Saakashvili told reporters in Tbilisi yesterday.

``It's everything we always agreed to,'' he said.

Saakashvili said Russia is seeking to overthrow his government, while Russia said it was protecting South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia.

Georgians feel ``let down'' by lack of support from the U.S. and Europe, Saakashvili said in comments on CNN today.

The combatants gave contradictory accounts of fighting. Georgia says Russia is invading cities, while the Russians insist they are hitting only military targets.

Russian troops abandoned a military base in the town of Senaki, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Abkhazia, late yesterday after ``eliminating the danger of shelling of Abkhazian territory and peacekeepers' positions,'' RIA Novosti news agency reported, citing an unidentified Russian Defense Ministry official.

The official also denied that Russian forces entered the Black Sea port of Poti, according to RIA. Reconnaissance units approached a bridge near Poti yesterday, he said.

Georgian Helicopters

Russian aircraft destroyed two Georgian helicopters, an Mi- 8 and an Mi-24, on a runway at the Senaki base, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement published on its Web site late yesterday.

Russia seized the Senaki base and invaded Gori near South Ossetia, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said by phone. Russian troops also took control of the main highway linking the east and the west of the country, Saakashvili was cited as saying by RIA.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in comments on CNN that Russia has ``to attack Georgian military targets'' to ``protect the lives of Russian citizens.''

Most residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia hold Russian passports.

Military Offensive

Russia has no plans to move on the Georgian capital, the Interfax news service cited a Defense Ministry official as saying. The conflict is Russia's first major military offensive outside its borders since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Georgia has 26,900 armed forces personnel, compared with 641,000 for Russia, according to Jane's Sentinel Country Risk Assessments. Russia also has more than 13,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers, compared with about 120 in Georgia.

Ivanov said the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, was still being shelled by Georgian artillery near Gori. A Russian Defense Ministry official said ``not a single Russian soldier'' is in the city.

Russia may be seeking to incapacitate the U.S.-armed Georgian military and topple Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer who came to power in 2003, said Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

``Russia has not brought in its troops, for the first time projecting military force outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in order to pull out quickly and return to the status quo,'' Lipman said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. ``I think that Russia has serious goals and Russia will not withdraw until its goals are fulfilled.''

Troops Sent In

Georgia and Russia began fighting when Russia moved in troops and bombed targets after Georgian forces began an offensive into South Ossetia, which split away from Georgia in an early 1990s war.

Russia has said its actions are justified by what it calls a Georgian-waged ``genocide'' in South Ossetia. Russia says most of those killed in the conflict are civilians who died through Georgian military action.

Georgia is a key link in the U.S.-backed ``southern energy corridor'' that connects the Caspian Sea region with world markets, bypassing Russia. The BP Plc-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline to Turkey runs about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Tskhinvali.

To contact the reporters on this story: Henry Meyer in Moscow at; Paul Abelsky in St. Petersburg at

Last Updated: August 11, 2008 22:06 EDT

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