Russia opens a new front in Georgia
Tanks push deeper as Bush presses immediate truce
GORI, Georgia - Russia escalated its war in Georgia again yesterday, sending troops and tanks out of separatist enclaves to stage the first major invasion of undisputed Georgian territory. One armored column seized a town and major military base in the west of Georgia, effectively opening a second front, while another menaced the central city of Gori.
The Georgian government abandoned Gori and ordered its troops to fall back to defend against a possible drive on Tbilisi, the capital, 40 miles away. In scenes of chaos, retreating Georgian army trucks shared the highway to the capital with cars and pickups loaded with frightened civilians. Other vehicles, victims of Russian attacks, burned.
In a television address, President Mikhail Saakashvili accused Russia of the "preplanned, coldblooded . . . murder of a small country." His government, among the most pro-American in the region, appealed again to the outside world for help.
In Washington, President Bush toughened his position, demanding that Russia end a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of violence in Georgia, agree to an immediate cease-fire, and accept international mediation to end the crisis in the former Soviet republic.
In a televised statement from the Rose Garden almost immediately after his return from the Olympics in China, Bush warned Russia to "reverse the course it appears to be on" and abandon any attempt it may have to topple Georgia's government.
"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," the president said, calling on Moscow to sign on to the outlines of a cease-fire as the Georgian government has done.
He said Russia's escalation of the conflict had "substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world." "These actions jeopardize Russia's relations with the United States and Europe," Bush said. "It's time for Russia to be true to its word to act to end this crisis."
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia used sharp language as well, accusing the West of supporting Georgian leaders who he contends committed genocide before their troops swept into the separatist zone of South Ossetia last week. The soldiers wiped out 10 villages, Putin said. "The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing," he declared.
Putin also condemned the United States for airlifting Georgian troops home from Iraq on an emergency basis. Still dressed in desert fatigues, the Georgian soldiers stepped off a US Air Force transport at a Georgian airport yesterday.
Moscow's intentions remained a mystery. Russian soldiers, riding tanks and armored personnel carriers, were on the move even as President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia seemed to suggest that the military operation was nearing its end, and a Russian general said there was no plan to take territory outside Georgia's two pro-Russian separatist zones. Senior European officials flew into the Georgian capital to try to mediate a cease-fire plan that so far the Russians have ignored.
Georgian and Russian officials confirmed that Russian soldiers took over the western city of Senaki and its base, about 25 miles from Abkhazia, a disputed separatist zone where Russia has been massing troops in recent days. There was confusion last night over the status of Gori, with some reports saying it was already in Russian hands. The country's main east-west highway, which passes through the city, was cut, Georgian officials said, and rumors swirled among residents of the capital that Russian soldiers would soon be on their streets.
During the weekend, Georgian leaders declared a unilateral cease-fire. But with Russian troops operating outside the country's two separatist zones on soil the central government has always controlled, at least some Georgian forces were again in combat mode. Reporters witnessed Georgian troops and six helicopter gunships opening fire near the border of South Ossetia, one of the zones.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s and have formed close relations with Russia. Last week, Georgian forces launched a major offensive that captured the South Ossetian capital in an effort to reestablish central government control; Russian forces drove them out two days later.
A Russian official, speaking in Moscow, said the seizure of the Senaki base was designed to prevent Georgian forces from regrouping and launching new attacks on South Ossetia. Russia accuses Georgia of continuing to shell South Ossetia.
Senaki is several hours' drive from South Ossetia and had been a concern for separatists in Abkhazia, not South Ossetia. Completed in 2006, the base was built to meet standards of the NATO alliance, which Georgia aspires to join.
The French and Finnish foreign ministers visited Tbilisi yesterday as part of a diplomatic push to end the fighting. They visited Gori as well, where they inspected a bombed apartment building. Bernard Kouchner, the French minister, said he wanted to get a "strong picture" of events on the ground. Finland's Alexander Stubb was present in Finland's capacity as rotating head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Russian officials continued yesterday to defend their country's actions. Grigory Karasin, Russia's deputy foreign minister, said that "we want television screens in the West to be showing not only Russian tanks and saying Russia is at war in South Ossetia and with Georgia, but also to be showing the suffering of the Ossetian people, the murdered elderly people and children, the destroyed towns of South Ossetia, and Tskhinvali. This would be an objective way of presenting the material."
The Russian claims of atrocities have not been independently verified.
Some of the few reporters who have visited Tskhinvali described a devastated city with large numbers of dead.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.