Georgian Troops Withdraw From South Ossetia, Russia Bombs Tbilisi Airport

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia on August 10 announced a withdrawal from the disputed territory of South Ossetia, but Russia’s bombing campaign against the South Caucasus country continued apace.

A Rustavi 2 channel television grab shows Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addressing the nation in Tbilisi. Russia kept up its attacks on Georgia in the early hours of Monday, brushing aside appeals for a ceasefire after its forces swept through the Georgian rebel region of South Ossetia.

National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia said the decision to pull Georgian forces out of the territory was made "in an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire" with Russia. "We can only hope that we will be able to do this to stop the aggression, " he said. The decision followed an August 9 order for a withdrawal from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Lomaia said that fighting had stopped. Georgian troops are "very well positioned to protect the city [of Gori]," he said.

Although the withdrawal from South Ossetia was a term laid down by Moscow for a cease-fire, the Kremlin has given no sign of relenting in its aerial bombardment of the country.

At roughly 7pm on August 10, Russian planes bombed Tbilisi International Airport, the government reported. No casualties were reported. Three bombs had hit a plane factory and military airfield not far from the airport at roughly sunrise on Sunday morning.

"The attack on Tbilisi Airport offers further evidence that Russia’s invasion of Georgia is not about Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The goal of the Russian Federation. . . is to overthrow the democratically elected government of this small European nation," National Security Council Secretary Lomaia said in a statement.

The strike was followed by a raucous public demonstration in downtown Tbilisi in protest at Russia’s attack. The strike against the airport is the latest in a varying campaign that targets both civilian and military strikes.

Roughly two hours following its initial August 10 strike against the Tbilisi plane factory and military airfield, Russian jets reportedly bombed a village, Urta, outside of Zugdidi, the regional center for Samegrelo a region in western Georgia that borders on the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

The village contains "transmission antenna," according to the government. While officials claimed that the blasts resulted in no damage, cell phone communications between western and eastern Georgia and within Tbilisi itself were disrupted throughout the day.

Russian forces have begun an artillery attack on Gori, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Shota Utiashvili stated. The attack began at roughly 9:20pm local time. Georgian forces, however, retained control of the city, he said.

A village between Gori, on the border of South Ossetia, and the nearby town of Kareli was bombed in the morning, according to government statement.

The strikes were followed by another reported attack in the late afternoon against an unidentified site on the outskirts of Gori and regular strikes against the Upper Kodori Gorge, a strip of territory in breakaway Abkhazia controlled by Tbilisi. Oni, a town in the remote mountainous region of Racha, which borders on South Ossetia, was reportedly hit by Russian planes late on August 9.

The National Security Council Secretary claimed that some 50-60 Russian planes are flying sorties over Georgia per day.

To date, 47 civilians have been killed in the fighting with Russia, and some 200 wounded, according to the government. The numbers appear to refer only to territory over which Georgia’s central government has full control – an expanse that would exclude Tskhinvali and other Russian-controlled parts of South Ossetia. Armed forces casualties were not immediately available.

"Our troops are fighting. They’re not letting the Russian troops enter in the city of Gori," he said, while adding that "we have to be realistic here . . . our resources are not unlimited."

The fight has also taken its toll on journalists. Ekho Moskvy radio station has reported that Georgian photo-journalist Alexander Klimchuk and reporter Grigol Chikhladze were killed in the South Ossetia conflict zone. The information has not been confirmed. Klimchuk is a freelance photographer who works for EurasiaNet, among other outlets.

In an apparent bid to avert casualties from an anticipated additional strike, police were diverting traffic from the Black Sea port city of Poti, already targeted on August 8, a EurasiaNet correspondent on the ground reported.

In remarks to reporters, National Security Council Secretary Lomaia described the bombing campaign and alleged influx of fresh Russian troops and heavy equipment as an attempt to "annihilate Georgia’s statehood."

The government claims that 6,000 Russian troops entered South Ossetia over night on August 9-10, accompanied by 90 tanks, 150 armored personnel carriers, and 250 artillery gunships.

The total amount of equipment "is enough to destroy a country ten times bigger than ours," Lomaia claimed.

The troop and equipment numbers could not be independently verified. Accessing international phone lines from within Georgia has become increasingly problematic.

At the same time, as of August 10, access to Russia-based news and government Web sites appeared to have been blocked.

In a conference call with reporters, Lomaia outlined what he believed to be the remaining options for Georgia in its struggle against Russia: a deployment of military equipment "not to fight, but to deter them"; and, the arrival of "a very, very high representative of a foreign government for a few days" to demonstrate international support for Georgia.

"Frankly speaking, we do not see any other way of stopping these people," he said.

[National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia is a former director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, an organization run under the auspices of the Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet is financed by OSI, but operates independently from the Open Society Georgia Foundation.]

Some 10,000 ethnic Georgians have been forced to leave South Ossetia by Russian troops, Lomaia reported – an alleged operation Georgian officials term ethnic cleansing.

In Tbilisi, scores of refugees gathered in front of the mayor’s office on August 10. The municipality, struggling to provide food and housing for the increasing numbers of displaced people, has asked the population for help. Refugees are being housed in makeshift camps in and near Tbilisi.

Seventy-five-year-old Gori resident Vakhtang Jorjiashvili told EurasiaNet that he and his family had slept on the street in front of the mayor’s office after arriving in Tbilisi. "Now, they found a place for my children and grandchildren, and also my daughter-in-law and my wife," he said. "My son and I are still homeless."

A group of men who lived just outside Tskhinvali told EurasiaNet that the Ossetians had started digging trenches a week before the fighting broke out.

"Then they evacuated many Ossetian civilians," one man said. "We knew something was coming, but we didn’t know it would be this bad… Then they started shelling Georgian villages. We asked the troops for help. They came to our rescue and repelled the Ossetians’ attack. But this was just the beginning. That’s when the Russians started coming in…. It was the worst bombing ever. Worse than in the 1990s [when South Ossetia fought Georgian forces for independence]."

But as Russia pounds Georgian territory, international envoys are still pondering a solution to the crisis.

The most categorical statement to date has come from Ukraine, a strong Georgian ally. On August 10, Ukraine warned that Russia’s actions could draw it into the fray. Ukraine may bar Russian navy ships deployed from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastapol from reentering the port, an August 10 statement on the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s web site reads.

Georgia claims that Russian ships from Sevastapol have landed some 4,000 troops at Ochamchira, a coastal town in Abkhazia, in a bid to open a second front in the conflict.

The government also claims that Russian ships are preventing other vessels bearing grain supplies from docking at Georgian ports. Lomaia estimates that Georgia has a 30-day supply in reserve.

"In order to prevent the circumstances in which Ukraine could be drawn into a military conflict ... Ukraine reserves the right to bar ships which may take part in these actions from returning to the Ukrainian territory until the conflict is solved," the statement affirmed. Ukraine, like Georgia, seeks entrance into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move which Russia fiercely opposes.

Moscow has not yet issued an official response to the statement.

Fuelled by the attacks, public anger against Russia is steadily growing. Cars bearing Georgian flags of all sizes can be seen on Tbilisi’s streets, while informal groups of city residents now gather in front of parliament to swap news and commiserate.

Shortly after the second August 10 bombing of the Tbilisi airfield, a raucous, large-scale demonstration took place in downtown Tbilisi, the second in two days.

The August 9 event had been followed by a march to the Russian embassy, where demonstrators staged against the building’s walls a slideshow protesting the attacks. Similar demonstrations have taken place in cities with sizeable Georgian Diasporas, including New York and Paris.

Source: EurasiaNet