Russian authorities said their forces had retaken the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, from Georgian control during the morning hours. They reported that 15 Russian peacekeepers and 1,500 civilians have been killed in the conflict.Don't buy this for a moment. The Russians have been backing the separatists in South Ossetia for years, and are now acting in an overt manner to claim the territory as its own.
Georgian forces shot down 10 Russian combat planes over the last two days, according to Alexander Lomaya, secretary of the Georgian National Security Council.
Shota Utiashvili, an official at the Georgian Interior Ministry, called the attack on Gori a “major escalation,” and said he expected attacks to increase over the course of Saturday. He said some 16 Russian planes were in the air over Georgian territory at any given time on Saturday, four times the number of sorties seen Friday.
In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, wounded fighters and civilians began to arrive in hospitals, most with shrapnel or mortar wounds. Several dozen names had been posted outside the hospital.
In a news conference, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Georgian attacks on Russian citizens “amounted to ethnic cleansing.”
Mr. Lavrov said Russian airstrikes targeted military staging grounds. Asked whether Russia is prepared to fight “all-out war” in Georgia, he said: “No. Georgia, I believe, started a war in Southern Ossetia, and we are responsible to keep the peace.”
Some of the friction between Russia and Georgia stems from Georgia's decision to attempt to join NATO. Russia wants to maintain its sphere of influence and views NATO as a threat to its hegemony along its borders. The South Ossetian situation had been a source of trouble since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and an uneasy peace had lasted this long.
I suspect that the Russians used the Olympics as cover to take direct action at a time when the world's attention was focused elsewhere. They are now portraying the Georgians as the aggressors and engaging in ethnic cleansing.
As Richard Fenandezpoints out:
The geopolitical value of South Ossetia, a remote region in the foothills of the Caucasus, is negligible. It is hardly worth a serious conflict between Russia and Georgia, still less between Russia and NATO. But a wounded Russian pride and American responsibility towards a loyal ally make it a volatile situation worth watching.President Bush says that the Russians are engaging in a dangerous escalation of the violence urging them to cease their air attacks, and the Georgian government has called for a ceasefire as the Georgia government notes that the Russians have launched a full scale invasion of Georgian territory.
It also appears that the Russians are attempting to cripple Georgia's oil infrastructure, which plays a key role in transporting oil to Europe. If you want to know why Europe isn't lifting a finger to tell Russia to stop, that's it.
Ralph Peters has more background on the origins of the current war and doesn't mince words about the fecklessness of the Europeans' failure to confront the Russian aggression.
Sky News has video of the Russian assault on Georgia. More video here and here (HT: killgore trout at LGF).
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