As Russian troops appeared to be advancing deeper into Georgian territory, indicating an escalation of the conflict over South Ossetia, US President George Bush condemned the offensive, calling on Russia to reverse its course in Georgia.
As Russian troops appeared to be moving deeper into Georgian territory, US President George Bush issued a strongly worded statement late Monday, calling on Russia to reverse its course in Georgia.
In a televised speech, Bush accused Russia of invading a sovereign neighbouring nation and threatening a democratically elected government. “Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century,” he added.
Bush’ comments came as the conflict over South Ossetia showed signs of spreading with Russian troops apparently advancing on two fronts from the Russian-backed breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgian territory.
In what he called the first independent confirmation of Russian forces moving into areas outside the breakaway province of South Ossetia, UN assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping Edmond Mulet said Russian troops occupied a military base in the western Georgian city of Senaki.
Hours later, a Russian Defence Ministry statement said Russian troops had pulled out of Senaki after “eliminating” a Georgian threat to shell South Ossetia.
The push into Senaki from Abkhazia, a breakaway province located in western Georgia, appeared to open a second front in Russia’s offensive against Georgia.
In a televised address to the nation earlier Monday, Saakashvili said Russian forces had seized control of “the majority of Georgian territory”.
But there were conflicting reports on Russian advances into Georgian territory. Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said Russian troops had entered the Black Sea port city of Poti. But the Russian Defence Ministry quickly denied the claim. "They (troops) had never been given such a task," the Russian Interfax news agency quoted a Defence Ministry official as saying.
Georgia had earlier accused Russia of capturing the strategic Georgian city of Gori, a claim Russian defence officials quickly denied.
There were scenes of mass panic as desperate residents of Gori attempted to flee the city, which is the largest city near the separatist province of South Ossetia.
Reporting from the road between Gori and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, FRANCE 24’s Tim Grucza said the route was packed with fleeing civilians as well as Georgian troops.
“Soldiers are desperately trying to get out,” said Grucza. “They’re even hitchhiking at the back of civilian vehicles. People are opening their boots to set soldiers sit in their car boots with their legs hanging out of the backs of cars.”
Georgian officials also said Russian troops had entered the western city of Zugdidi, a report that was confirmed by a Norwegian reporter at the scene, according to the AFP news service.
Georgia signs EU-backed ceasefire plan
The Russian advance came even as Georgia signed an EU-backed ceasefire deal earlier Monday following a meeting between Saakashvili and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Tbilisi.
Kouchner was on a visit to Georgia, where he is heading an EU delegation pushing for a solution to the current crisis in the Caucusus. France currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
Speaking to reporters shortly after his meeting with Kouchner, Saakashvili said he agreed with the EU backed plan calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and posting a mixed peacekeeping force including Russian, Georgian and international troops.
Kouchner is set to visit Moscow Tuesday, where he will be joined by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an attempt to get Moscow on board with the ceasefire plan.
But even as a diplomatic shuffle gets underway in the region, there were early signs that Russia had rejected the ceasefire proposal.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would never be a "passive observer" in the Caucasus region in a televised statement Monday. But he later suggested sending a mission from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to South Ossetia.
Reporting from Moscow, FRANCE 24’s Romain Goguelin said experts believe that Russia is reinforcing its positions before starting any negotiations. But, he added, that Moscow in the long term, was probably looking to establish “the status quo that existed before the start of the conflict with two separatist areas unofficially controlled by Russia.”
Tensions between Russia and Georgia grew out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 with the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia declaring their intentions to separate from Georgia, claims Tbilisi rejects.
Date created : 2008-08-11