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Georgia withdraws from South Ossetia, Russia gains ground

Latest update : 2008-08-10

Georgian forces have withdrawn from the embattled breakaway territory of South Ossetia, where they had been fighting Russia for control of the de facto capital Tskhinvali. Russian troops are advancing on several fronts.

Georgia announced its withdrawal from nearly all of the separatist province of South Ossetia early Sunday morning, and claims that the Russian army has taken control of Tskhinvali, the breakaway region’s de-facto capital. Russian troops appear to be rapidly advancing in the region.


Russian and Georgian forces have been engaged in open fighting for control of South Ossetia since Friday. Most of the fighting has focused on Tskhinvali, with Georgia trying to maintain control of the city against the advance of Russian troops. Russian tanks reached the capital on Friday afternoon.


Georgia's government said in a statement on Sunday that an additional 10,000 Russian troops had entered the country in two places:  6,000 through the Roki tunnel in North Ossetia, and 4,000 through the coast of Abkhazia, another Georgian separatist region.


Fresh attacks in Abkhazia


Abkhazia has become the theatre of recent attacks. According to the Georgian state television, Russian planes have bombed the region of Kodori, the only part of Abkhazia controlled by Georgians. Russian ground troops have also reportedly entered the region to join 1,000 Abkhazian separatist fighters to launch attacks on Georgian troops. Georgia also claims that border city of Zougdidi is currently being bombed by Russia, and that the city of Gori, in the center of the country, has been surrounded by Russian troops.


“The new front in Abkhazia is a test, a way for Russians to see how far they can go” says Gaultier Rybinsky, FRANCE 24 international affairs specialist.


Georgian National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia told AFP that his country “has left practically all of South Ossetia as an expression of good will and our willingness to stop military confrontation”.


Georgia has asked the United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to act as a mediator with Russia, said Lomaia.


Meanwhile, Russian warships arrived at the Georgian Black Sea Coast, reportedly to set up a sea blockade to prevent arms and other military supplies from reaching the country. Separately, RIA Novosti news agency quoted a senior navy source as denying that a blockade was in effect.


“A coastal blockade would mean war with Georgia. We are not in a state of war with Georgia”, the source said.



An ongoing conflict


Tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia grew out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgia accuses Moscow of planning to annex  the oil-rich province of South Ossetia.


The situation worsened over the past few months, after Moscow’s decision to establish official relations with Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders in April 2008.  Moscow has sought to make its presence felt in the province by posting peacekeeping soldiers there and delivering Russian passports to a majority of local residents.


Othar Zourabichivili, president of the Georgian association of France, told FRANCE 24 in an interview that “Russia’s peacekeeping troops stationed at the border between Georgia and South Ossetia are not a neutral force”, adding thatthey have been arming Ossetian separatists, who attack Georgian villages.”


The conflict's escalation can be attributed to two factors, says FRANCE 24's international affairs editor Robert Parsons."The two key issues here are Moscow’s fury at growing Western support for Georgia to join NATO, and Western recognition earlier this year for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia."


Both countries blame each other for the escalating violence. Georgian President Mikhaïl Saakashvili accused Russia of “fighting a war with them in their own territory". Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the violence in the breakaway region as “genocide”.


In the absence of independent verification, there are conflicting figures on the number of casualties suffered since the beginning of the conflict. According to Georgian Foreign minister Eka Tkeshelashvili, the conflict with Russia has claimed 150 lives including 40 civilians, but Russian estimates the civilian death toll to be of nearly 2,000.



NATO: Russia must respect Georgian integrity


The US has sided with Georgia and called Russia’s military support “dangerous and disproportionate”, but the UN Security Council has been so far unable to break a deadlock concerning an accord on a common call for truce.


“Future peace talks can only be based on the respect of Georgian territorial integrity,” insisted NATO representative Carmen Romero when interviewed by FRANCE 24.


A joint European-US mission is heading for Georgia to help broker a ceasefire with Russia.


Date created : 2008-08-10