Georgia and Russia stood at the brink of an all-out conflict August 8, after Georgian Interior Ministry units opened a campaign to retake the separatist territory of South Ossetia. Civilians were scrambling to escape the conflict zone, amid reports that Russian armor and aircraft had entered the conflict.
Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze has said that the government will continue the campaign against South Ossetian separatists until "a durable peace" can be established in the breakaway region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Tbilisi claims that the fighting began in the early hours of August 8 after South Ossetian separatists attacked two nearby villages and peacekeeper posts, leaving several dead and wounded. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had offered a cease-fire the night before.
“To protect [the] peaceful civilian population and stop [the] military attack, [the] Government of Georgia was forced to take adequate measures,” an official statement reads.
Tbilisi claims that it has largely reestablished control over the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, in addition to establishing full control over several nearby Ossetian villages. The government charges, however, that Russian planes have begun a bombing campaign in response to the fighting.
Russian planes reportedly dropped bombs on four separate locations within Georgia: the regional center of Gori, about 25 kilometers from Tskhinvali; the nearby town of Kareli; and two military air bases outside of Tbilisi (Vardziani and Marneuli). The Georgian Interior Ministry reports that three men were killed in the Marneuli attack.
Anti-aircraft artillery stands at the ready along the Georgian-controlled road heading from Gori into Tskhinvali.
Moscow has not yet confirmed the reports of bombing Georgian territory, though the Kremlin has warned that it will take all possible measures to defend the safety of its citizens within South Ossetia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Georgia of attempting to conduct “ethnic cleansing” in Ossetia.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Beijing to attend the opening of the Olympic Games, vowed that Russia would retaliate. With Russia’s support, South Ossetia broke free of Tbilisi’s authority in 1992 following a brief conflict. Since then, Moscow has granted Russian citizenship to a large number of Ossetians, despite the fact that the United Nations has always recognized Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev echoed Putin’s sentiments. “I am obliged to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located," Medvedev said in televised remarks. "We won't allow the death of our compatriots to go unpunished."
Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry insisted that Tbilisi would be solely responsible for the casualties and destruction. "Bloodshed in South Ossetia will weigh on their conscience," said a Defense Ministry statement.
Amid growing international concerns that war between Georgia and Russia could be in the offing, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told a morning news briefing on August 8 that Georgian forces were determined to keep pressing on. “Our priority is the establishment of peace in Ossetian territory,” he said. Once peace is established, he continued, “the dialogue [with separatists] will continue.”
Meanwhile, Saakashvili assailed Russia for intervening. "We are right now suffering because we want to be free and we want to be a multiethnic democracy," Saakashvili said in a television interview broadcast by CNN.
Confusion prevails about the status of Tskhinvali. While Georgian forces maintain that they hold 70 percent of the city, separatist South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti told Interfax in the early evening on August 8 that the South Ossetians will retake the city “very soon.” A tank battle with Georgian forces, he said, was taking place to the south of the city.
The Georgian Interior Ministry has denied the report. Spokesperson Shota Utiashvili told EurasiaNet, however, that some 150 Russian tanks have moved into the district of Java, to the north of Tskhinvali. Russian planes, he added, are continuing to bomb Georgian positions near the town.
Many of the claims and counter-claims by Georgian and Ossetian leaders cannot be independently verified. Access to Tskhinvali is blocked and phone lines from Tbilisi are not functioning.
However, EurasiaNet correspondents traveled extensively in the conflict zone and report that the situation remains fluid and dangerous.
The bombing was not limited to the conflict zone. About 25 kilometers outside of Tbilisi, a pair of bombs left two gaping craters at the military base of Vavziani, a facility recently renovated with US assistance. There were no casualties. “I came here with my son since he was called to duty as a reservist,” said 50-year old Mediko Pirtskhalava. “And then out of nowhere this jet came. There was a terrible explosion and we all lay on the floor for safety.”
From a relatively safe position near the Georgian village of Ergneti, local and international journalists watched the shelling of nearby targets as the Tskhinvali area was constantly covered in smoke. Fighter jets flew overhead and fired ordinance at various targets. It was difficult to determine which planes were Georgian and Russian. However, Georgian Ministry of Defense press officer Nino Rusadze believed a barrage of jet-fired missiles west of Tskhinvali towards Tamaresheni and Ksuisi were aimed at Georgian positions there. “Georgia controls three villages there. Two are Georgian and the Ossetian one was brought under control last night,” she said.
A EurasiaNet correspondent witnessed a jet dive and fire missiles toward Mereti, a Georgian village southwest of Tskhinvali. As a group of journalists traveled in the direction of the village, women and children were being packed into taxis and minivans, and heading toward safety. Mereti was full of Georgian troops. Getting closer, a standard truck-type personnel carrier burned, as shots could be heard nearby. Villagers confirmed that a plane had fired missiles at the village and had hit two trucks. No deaths were reported, but wounded soldiers could be seen being evacuated. Elsewhere, residents of the Georgian controlled village of Tamaresheni, contacted by telephone, said they were waiting out an artillery barrage in their basement.
Later, a group of journalists visited the former factory Kombinat, site of an alleged Russian jet bombing in Gori. Zurab Totalidze, a watchman at a telephone transmitter, witnessed a plane fly overhead and drop a bomb in the vicinity of a Georgian village south of town and return to drop a bomb in Kombinat. He believes the telephone transmitter was the target. “It happened so fast I didn't have time to be scared,” he said.
In Gori, calm prevailed, despite a heavy presence of armed interior ministry troops. Outside one hospital, guarded by rifle-toting troops, relatives and friends of wounded troops gathered in the early afternoon to gain what information they could from hospital staff through the hospital gates. Fliers where placed on a tree in front of the hospital listing the names of 96 wounded troops. A line under one name indicated the death of a soldier.
Hospital staff member Ilia Chorgolashvili told EurasiaNet that there were up to a hundred wounded troops treated at the hospital. “Now it’s a bit calmer, but they have been bringing in scores of wounded military in the night,” said Chorgolashvili, his rubber gloves covered in blood. “Some of them are beyond treatment…. Those who are given emergency treatment are taken to Tbilisi to give place to the new arrivals.”
A bomb, dropped earlier, allegedly by a Russian warplane on the outskirts of Gori, sent the hospital staff into panic, he added. “We thought that was it,” Chorgolashvili said.
At 3pm Tbilisi time, Tbilisi Mayor Givi Ugulava declared that Georgia would observe a cease-fire for three hours to give civilians a chance to exit Tskhinvali and other points in the conflict zone. Many residents of villages in the vicinity of Tskhinvali were leaving their homes, piling into city buses or minibuses; others refused to leave, but evacuated their children. In the village of Tkviavi, a few kilometers shy of Tskhinvali, a group of villagers stood together chatting and watching Georgian troops. “They kept shelling our village all night long and this morning,” said one resident, in reference to separatist forces. “Jets were darting very low over the houses,” he added showing a part of what he thought was an exploded mortar.
Zaur Edisharshvili, 52 year-old resident of Megrevski, a Georgian controlled village bordering Tskhinvali, said his neighbor's house was totally destroyed. He also said residents have sent their children away, while everybody else stayed behind despite the constant shelling nearby. “I told me wife to go too, but she stayed. All our women stayed,” he stated.
A woman hitched a ride with EurasiaNet car to travel closer to the front lines to bring back her grandchildren from a village nearby Tskhinvali. “Now it’s calmer but I fear it is going to erupt again in the night,” she said.
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi. Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. This story contains reporting from Paul Rimple.