Russia gives Georgia an ultimatum
Russia gives Georgia an ultimatum
By Michael Schwirtz, Anne Barnard and Andrew E. Kramer
Published: August 11, 2008
SENAKI, Georgia: Russia issued an ultimatum to Georgia on Monday to disarm its troops along the boundary with the pro-Russian separatist enclave of Abkhazia as Russian tanks rolled across the internal border and occupied a military base in western Georgia.
The move was a sign that fighting could escalate on a second, western front after the conflict initially broke out last week around South Ossetia, the separatist enclave farther east.
President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia said its forces had "completed a significant part of the operations to oblige Georgia, the Georgian authorities, to restore peace to South Ossetia," according to a transcript of his remarks with Anatoly Serdyukov, the defense minister, on the Kremlin Web site.
Separately, Russia said it was seeking an emergency meeting with NATO to discuss the crisis.
But the Russian Defense Ministry said that armored vehicles and troops had overrun a military base in the Georgian town of Senaki, about 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, south of the Abkhazian border, suggesting that Russian troops had already begun to move south from the enclave into Georgia proper.
The Russian ultimatum, issued by Major General Sergei Chaban, commander of Russian peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia, called for Georgian troops to disarm in the Zugdidi district, along the border between Abkhazia and Georgia.
Russia has poured extra forces into Abkhazia, where it now has at least 9,000 troops and 350 armored vehicles.
Giga Bokeria, a Georgian official close to President Mikheil Saakashvili, said the ultimatum raised alarms that Russian troops would now make a broader push into Georgian territory in the west of the country. Many Georgian troops have been tied up in fighting farther east, near South Ossetia.
A pivotal question in the conflict, which has involved heavy fighting since late last week, is whether Russia would push beyond those regions and farther into Georgia.
On Sunday, a reporter for The New York Times saw an armored personnel carrier emblazoned with the letters MT, the Russian abbreviation for peacekeepers, on the street in Senaki and on Monday saw tanks and troops occupying the military base there. However, there was no immediate sign of fighting.
To the east, civilians were fleeing Gori, a city south of South Ossetia that is a major staging area for the Georgian military. In Tbilisi, an ambulance driver from Gori showed video footage on his mobile phone of fire in the city and said Russian troops had taken over; Russia denied having any troops there.
Residents were also fleeing the port city of Poti, said Karina Tsotsoria, a Georgian woman living in Moscow, who said she had just spoken on the phone to her husband, Badri, who had fled their home when he saw television footage of approaching Russian tanks.
"He's afraid," she said. "We don't know what their goals are. How can you be sure, when tanks approach your city, that they won't shoot?" She expressed anger, pointing out that Poti is far from South Ossetia, where the fighting began.
Saakashvili issued a furious denunciation of Russia on Monday, accusing it of "ethnic cleansing" and saying the Kremlin's actions constituted "the preplanned, cold-blooded, premeditated murder of a small country."
He equated Russian military action with war crimes committed in the Balkans in the 1990s. "What else can happen for the world to wake up and see what's at stake?" he said at a news conference in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. "Didn't we have enough experience from the Balkans?"
Russian officials say Georgia provoked the assault on its troops by attacking South Ossetia last week, causing heavy civilian casualties.
The Kremlin said that its actions since then have been intended to strike at Georgian military forces that fired on its peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia and that it did not intend a broader offensive deeper into Georgia.
But Georgian officials said that over the weekend Russia had expanded its attacks on Georgia, moving tanks and troops through South Ossetia and advancing toward Gori.
That maneuver, the Russian bombing of Tbilisi, and then the occupation of a Georgian military base in Senaki seemed to suggest that Russia's aims in the conflict after four days of fighting had gone beyond securing South Ossetia and Abkhazia to weakening the armed forces of Georgia, a former Soviet republic and an ally of the United States whose Western leanings have long irritated the Kremlin.
On Monday, in a conference call with reporters, Saakashvili said Georgian and Russian troops had fought fierce battles overnight as Russian tanks advanced toward Gori before being driven back, with heavy casualties on both sides. Russian planes also bombed targets across Georgia on Monday, including roads and bridges, he said, before fleeing to a bomb shelter because Russian planes were flying over the presidential palace in Tbilisi.
Explosions were seen in the fields around Gori around 12:35 p.m. Monday. There was no evidence of bombing in civilian areas of the town, a major military and transportation hub. But from high ground, plumes of white smoke and clouds on the outskirts were visible. It was unclear whether the explosions were caused by airstrikes or by shelling.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France was expected to arrive in Gori on Monday as part of a European mission to try to mediate the conflict. Kouchner has been trying to arrange a cease-fire and Saakashvili said Georgia had signed one.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry said it would agree to a cease-fire only if Georgia pulled its troops out of South Ossetia and signed an agreement banning the use of force against the territory. Saakashvili has made reuniting the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia a centerpiece of his presidency.
On Monday, an Abkhaz official said that Abkhaz forces, backed by Russian paratroopers, would kill Georgian troops if they did not leave Kodori Gorge, the only part of the territory where Georgia has military forces. Abkhaz troops blocked the gorge and proposed the formation of a humanitarian corridor to allow Georgian troops and civilians to leave safely, the Abkhaz defense minister, Mirab Kishmariya, told the Russian news agency Interfax.
"If the Georgian troops don't take advantage of this opportunity, then an operation to eliminate them will begin," the minister said.
Russia's escalation of the fighting, after Georgia offered a cease-fire and said it had pulled its troops out of South Ossetia, set the stage for an intense diplomatic confrontation with the United States.
Two senior Western officials said that it was unclear whether Russia intended a full invasion of Georgia but that its aims could go as far as destroying its armed forces or overthrowing Saakashvili.
"They seem to have gone beyond the logical stopping point," one senior Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic protocol.
The fighting raised tensions between Russia and its former Cold War foes to their highest level in decades. President George W. Bush has promoted Georgia as a bastion of democracy, helped strengthen its military and urged that NATO grant the country to membership. Georgia serves as a major conduit for oil flowing from Russia and Central Asia to the West.
But Russia, emboldened by windfall profits from oil exports, is showing a resolve to reassert its dominance in a region it has always considered its "near abroad."
The military action, which has involved air, naval and missile attacks, is the largest engagement by Russian forces outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Gori, Georgia; Anne Barnard from Moscow; and Michael Schwirtz from Senaki, Georgia. Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Kulish from Tbilisi, Georgia; Helene Cooper from Washington; Joseph Sywenkiy from Gori, Georgia; and Katrin Bennhold and Tom Rachman from Paris.