GORI, Georgia – Russia sent hundreds of tanks and troops into the separatist province of South Ossetia and bombed Georgian towns Saturday in a major escalation of the conflict that has left scores of civilians dead and wounded.
Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, launched a major offensive Friday to retake control of breakaway South Ossetia. Russia, which has close ties to the province and posts peacekeepers there, responded by sending in armed convoys and military combat aircraft.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that some 1,500 people have been killed, with the death toll rising Saturday.
The figure could not be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the fighting said hundreds of civilians had probably died. They said most of the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, was in ruins, with bodies lying everywhere.
The air and artillery bombardment left the provincial capital without water, food, electricity and gas. Horrified civilians crawled out of the basements into the streets as fighting eased, looking for supplies.
Russian Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev claimed in televised comments Saturday that Russian troops had driven Georgian forces out of the provincial capital. Witnesses confirmed that there was no sign of Georgian soldiers in the streets.
Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili proposed a cease-fire Saturday. As part of his proposal, Georgian troops were pulled out of Tskhinvali and had been ordered to stop responding to Russian shelling, said Alexander Lomaia, secretary of his Security Council.
Russia did not immediately respond to Saakashvili’s proposal. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had said earlier that Moscow sent troops into South Ossetia to force Georgia into a cease-fire.
Lomaia said there had been direct fighting between Russian and Georgian soldiers on the streets of Tskhinvali. He estimated that Russia sent 2,500 troops into Georgia. The Russian military has not said how many of its troops were deployed.
Russian military aircraft also bombed the Georgian town of Gori on Saturday. An Associated Press reporter who visited Gori shortly afterward saw several apartment buildings in ruins, some still on fire, and scores of dead bodies and bloodied civilians. The elderly, women and children were among the victims.
“Georgia is facing Russia’s military aggression,” Saakashvili said, noting that Russian forces were attacking areas outside South Ossetia. “Georgian authorities support a cease-fire and separation of the warring parties.”
It is the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992.
The fighting threatens to ignite a wider war between Russia and Georgia, which accused Russia of bombing its towns, ports and air bases. Georgia, a former Soviet republic with ambitions of joining NATO, has asked the international community to help end what it called Russian aggression.
To paraphrase something I said in a previous post: Russia has not adjusted very well to its disintegration, or the fact that territories like Georgia want autonomy.
We can look forward to more agressive behavior from Russia’s leadership, the more it spirals downward into economic and political chaos. The former Soviet satellites have fulfilled Russia’s worst nightmare: reaching out to NATO for cooperation and becoming part of the capitalist system so reviled by Lenin and Marx.
As Madame Secretary Rice so aptly stated:
“The Soviet Union . . . is gone forever, and I hope that Russia understands that,” she said. “We are absolutely devoted to the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine and of other states that were once a part of the Soviet Union.”
Let’s hope our government sticks by its guns and gives Georgia the support we promised.