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Fighting in Caucasus intensifies

Times Staff Writer

Russian tanks rumbled into the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia on Friday, warplanes launched airstrikes and fighters reportedly made their way over the border, as Moscow pushed closer to full-blown war against U.S.-backed Georgia.

The fighting that erupted between Georgia on the one hand, and Russia and Ossetian rebels on the other, over the mountainous sliver of land threatened to provide a battleground for long-simmering tensions between Moscow and the West.

At nightfall, each side was calling in reinforcements and pumping out radically different versions of the day’s events in the region, which is strategically important for its oil and gas pipelines.

A sharp escalation began earlier Friday, when Georgia launched a large-scale, predawn military operation meant to seize control of the rebel region, whose de facto autonomy and ties to Russia have long been an irritant to Georgian leaders. Backed by warplanes, Georgian troops plunged into South Ossetia and waged a hard battle throughout the day for control of the republic’s capital, Tskhinvali.

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Officials on both sides reported civilian deaths, though estimates could not be confirmed. Hundreds were reported killed in the fighting. South Ossetian officials claimed 1,400 of their people had died.

Each side blamed the other for violating a shaky cease-fire and throwing the republic back into fighting. And both claimed that victory was almost theirs.

Tskhinvali’s status remained unclear late Friday. Both sides, by turns, claimed to have seized control of most of the city. Russian troops reported that many of the buildings had been destroyed and that the parliament building burned to the ground. Aid organizations warned that civilians were hiding in basements without water, electricity or medical help.

Georgian officials said warplanes hit Poti on the Black Sea, an oil shipping port. News reports said bombs also fell near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

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The United Nations Security Council called its second emergency session in less than 24 hours in an attempt to prevent war, but by Friday evening diplomats remained unable to reach an agreement on a statement calling for negotiations and an end to violence.

In Beijing, where President Bush was attending the Olympics, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the United States, which “supports Georgia’s territorial integrity,” was calling for an immediate cease-fire. The Pentagon has about 200 troops in Georgia training Georgian units deployed to Iraq, officials said.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, called on the international community to “give Russia the message that invading the territory of a sovereign state and bombing its territory is unacceptable in the 21st century.”

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity called the fight a “genocide.”

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“The latest tragic developments should become the last step toward the recognition of South Ossetia’s independence,” he told the Interfax news agency. “I am sure that the independence of South Ossetia will be recognized in the near future.”

With Russia pitted against U.S.-backed Georgia, the conflict could escalate quickly -- and prove difficult to quell. From Chechnya to Abkhazia, another separatist region of Georgia, Russian-sponsored volunteers were encouraged to join South Ossetia’s fight against Georgia, raising the threat of a war that could engulf the historically volatile Caucasus.

On Friday night, a military convoy left the Abkhaz capital and headed for South Ossetia to join the battle, Interfax reported.

The region has emerged as a sort of post-Cold War proving ground where the United States and Russia jockey for influence. Relations between the two countries have chilled under the leadership of former President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, as an increasingly strong and wealthy Russia seeks to reestablish itself as a superpower.

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Georgia is a key player in that contest. A small, mountainous and poor country on Russia’s southern flank, it has deeply distressed Moscow by allying itself with the United States. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has sent 2,000 soldiers to fight in Iraq, and he campaigns for North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership.

But Georgia has long been bedeviled by the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both republics fought bloody wars for de facto independence after the Soviet collapse, and have depended on Moscow for everything from passports to political cover. Russian peacekeeping forces have been stationed in the republics for years.

This year, analysts say, Russia seized upon the friendly republics to score a point in its ongoing grudge match against the West. When Kosovo declared independence from Russian ally Serbia, Moscow warned that breakaway regions around the world would be encouraged to follow suit. Critics accuse Russia of fomenting strife in Georgia’s rebel provinces to drive the point home.

All these tensions -- between Russia and the West, between Georgia and its breakaway republics -- are fuel for this week’s fighting, and reasons the violence may be hard to contain.

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“It’s clearly very unstable and dangerous,” said Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get back to square one. This has already created something that is not going to fade away easily, this resentment and hostility.”

If Russia were to engage in a full-on military conflict with Georgia, analysts say, the battle would probably be protracted and bloody.

Although Georgia is far smaller and poorer than Russia, the Georgian military has been refurbished with training and equipment from the United States. Georgian soldiers would also have the advantage of fighting on familiar mountain terrain well-suited for guerrilla tactics.

David L. Phillips, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council of the United States think tank, said he spoke with Saakashvili about six weeks ago. The Georgian leader argued that his military would stand a fighting chance against Russia, Phillips said.

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“Except for Russia’s superior air power, he’s of the belief that they can go toe to toe with Moscow,” Phillips said.

Many analysts said that Russia, glutted with oil and gas profits and enjoying a stability unprecedented in recent years, has little strategic interest in a war with Georgia. Despite the Cold War-style rhetoric, Russia values its ties to the U.S. too much to damage them over a relatively minor issue such as South Ossetia.

But, they warn, Russia may have little choice. Moscow is eager to demonstrate dominance in the region. Moreover, it will be difficult for Russia to stomach attacks on South Ossetians, most of whom have been made Russian citizens and granted passports.

“So many times we said we’re going to support the Ossetians. To now say, ‘OK, guys, you lost the war, you have to be part of Georgia,’ is impossible,” Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer said.

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And Russia is already losing men. At least 10 soldiers were killed in Friday’s fighting, and dozens more wounded, Russian officials said.

“Of course there will be a response,” said Putin, speaking on the sidelines of the Olympics in Beijing.

“We will not allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in Moscow. “Those who are guilty will be duly punished.”

Around the same time, Russian warplanes launched airstrikes on several Georgian towns, according to Georgian witnesses, and Russian army units were sent over the border. Later in the day, Russian planes reportedly bombed Georgian air bases.

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Russian news reports referred to the fresh army units headed into South Ossetia from Russia as “reinforcements.” South Ossetian leaders told Interfax the arrival of new fighters was helping them to recapture control of the capital from Georgian troops.

Saakashvili, meanwhile, ordered a full mobilization of all reservists, and told CNN that his government planned to call home the 2,000 Georgian troops currently serving with U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

“We all have to unite in this very important and difficult moment for our homeland, when our future and our freedom are under threat,” Saakashvili said in a national address.

megan.stack@latimes.com

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Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Washington and Erika Hayasaki in New York, and special correspondent Tiko Ninua in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Georgia

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Geography

Mountainous nation of 26,900 square miles (about one-sixth the size of California) in the Caucasus region between Russia and Turkey.

Population

An estimated 4.6 million people, mostly Georgians but also minorities such as Russians, Azeris and Armenians. The nation is overwhelmingly Christian.

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History

Absorbed into the Russian empire in the 19th century, Georgia sought independence with the fall of the czar but was invaded by the Red Army in 1921 and incorporated into the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin was a native of Georgia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia became an independent nation. In recent years, it has increasingly been allied with the West, to the disquiet of Moscow. Georgia is seeking membership in NATO and has about 2,000 troops in Iraq.

South Ossetia

The northern province has a population of about 70,000, mostly Ossetians with a minority of Georgians. It enjoyed broad autonomy within Soviet Georgia. It has largely run its own affairs since rebelling against Georgian rule in a 1991-92 conflict that killed more than 1,000 people. South Ossetians have voted for independence twice in referendums, but the territory has not gained widespread international recognition, leaving it in limbo. (Abkhazia, another region in Georgia, also has claimed independence.) Russia has peacekeepers in South Ossetia, but Georgia accuses them of siding with the separatists. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has vowed to reassert authority over the breakaway republic.

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Source: Times Staff and Wire Services


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