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Georgia Attacks South Ossetia, Russia entering with tanks



08.08.2008 

One hundred fifty Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles have entered South Ossetia

Georgia pounded the capital of its breakaway South Ossetia province with heavy weapons on Thursday after a ceasefire broke down within hours and separatists said they were under siege.

President Mikhail Saakashvili praised a joint military training program involving more than 1,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers at a former Soviet base Monday, amid heightened tensions with Moscow.

Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq - making it the third largest contributor to coalition forces after the U.S. and Britain

The U.S. soldiers, Marines and airmen arrived in Tbilisi in mid-July to teach combat skills to Georgian soldiers, as well as 30 troops from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. The program, called Exercise Immediate Response 2008

In January, Georgian defense officials began to phase out use of the Russian-designed Kalashnikov rifle and introduce the American M-16. Georgian troops were training mostly with American weapons on two gunnery ranges Friday. Many NATO countries use the M-16.

"Georgian troops are storming Tskhinvali (the capital). They are bombing the city," South Ossetia's separatist leader, Eduard Kokoity, told Russian news agencies.

A Reuters reporter saw intense fire from heavy weapons at different locations skirting Tskhinvali. The reporter heard heavy fighting coming from the direction of the city.

The night sky was lit up blue and red by explosions and Georgian forces appeared to be firing Katyusha rockets.

"We have an operation under way to neutralize separatist positions from which they are shelling Georgian villages," a senior interior ministry official told Reuters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

The commander of Georgian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Mamuka Kurashvili, told Georgian television: "We are forced to restore constitutional order in the whole region."

Skirmishes since the weekend have deepened fears of full-blown conflict in the Caucasus, which is emerging as a vital energy transit route and where Russia and the West are vying for influence.

South Ossetia and a second rebel Georgian region, Abkhazia, --both of which unilaterally broke away from Georgia at the beginning of the 1990s - enjoy Russian political and financial backing, ex-Soviet Georgia has allied itself with the West and is pushing for NATO membership.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili earlier on Thursday offered the separatists an immediate ceasefire following fighting in which Tbilisi said up to 10 Georgian peacekeepers and civilians had been killed.

Fighting stopped on Thursday afternoon after Saakashavili said he had instructed troops to stop returning fire and Moscow said the two feuding sides would hold talks on Friday.

But artillery fire broke out again with nightfall. Friday's meeting looked increasingly unlikely to go ahead.

"MERCENARIES" HEAD TO REGION

Russia's envoy said Georgia's military operation showed it could not be trusted and NATO should reconsider its plans to grant membership to the ex-Soviet state, Interfax news agency reported.

"Georgia's step is absolutely incomprehensible and shows that the Georgian leadership has zero credit of trust," said the envoy, Yuri Popov, who was dispatched to the region on emergency.

Officials had said Thursday's fighting killed up to 10 Georgian soldiers and civilians, and two Ossetian civilians.

A Georgian security source told Reuters Georgia had moved special police units and an army brigade up to the town of Gori, on the edge of South Ossetia. A military field hospital had been set up and some civilians were seen leaving for Gori.

The Georgian government said it had information about "hundreds of mercenaries, tanks and other equipment" entering South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel from Russia. A government official said Russian army units were also approaching.

Interfax news agency said hundreds of volunteers from Russia and Abkhazia were heading for South Ossetia on Friday to support the separatists.

The United Nations and European Union appealed for calm.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana discussed the situation by telephone with Saakashvili.

"Solana expressed his serious concern about the situation in South Ossetia and called for every effort to be made to rapidly end the violence and resume peaceful talks between the sides," an EU statement said.

Fitch's head of emerging European sovereigns, Edward Parker, told Reuters prolonged warfare could prompt the ratings agency to downgrade Georgia from its current BB-rating with stable outlook and have an impact on foreign investment.

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US troops train Georgians amid tension
TBILISI, Georgia - President Mikhail Saakashvili praised a joint military training program involving more than 1,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers at a former Soviet base Monday, amid heightened tensions with Moscow.

The effort, involving 600 Georgian troops, shows that Georgia has "the best trained and equipped army" in the strategic Caucasus mountain region, Saakashvili said in comments broadcast on Georgian television.

While the exercise was planned months ago, it followed sporadic clashes between Georgians and separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway regions closely tied to Russia. And it comes amid friction over Georgia's bid for NATO membership, viewed by Moscow as hostile.

Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq - making it the third largest contributor to coalition forces after the U.S. and Britain - but plans to end the Iraq operation by the end of this year.So far, five Georgian soldiers have died in the conflict.

Marine Capt. James Haunty, 30, of Columbus, Ohio, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, said Friday that he was keeping an eye on the simmering conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"I'm not concerned about anything serious happening as long as there are U.S. troops here in Georgia," Haunty said, shortly before 50-caliber machine gun bullets began peppering a hillside at the Vaziani training complex, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) east of the capital. "But we still will monitor the situation."

The U.S. soldiers, Marines and airmen arrived in Tbilisi in mid-July to teach combat skills to Georgian soldiers, as well as 30 troops from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. The program, called Exercise Immediate Response 2008, includes simulated attacks from roadside bombs and other challenges troops might expect in Iraq, Haunty said.

Lance Cpl. Jonah Salyers, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, a Marine reservist, said it was his first trip outside of the United States and conceded that he might not have been able to find the republic of Georgia on a map.

"I could have found the state, I'll tell you that," he said Friday.

Pointing to the snowcapped Caucasus mountains to the north, Salyers said: "Obviously the countryside is absolutely beautiful."

Cpl. Georgi Adaze, 21, who joined Georgia's 4th Infantry Brigade seven months ago, said he enjoyed working with the American troops. "I am ready to serve my country and get military experience," he said, in an interview closely monitored by two Georgian military officers.

Georgia, which was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union, has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership - a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its influence in the region.

In January, Georgian defense officials began to phase out use of the Russian-designed Kalashnikov rifle and introduce the American M-16. Georgian troops were training mostly with American weapons on two gunnery ranges Friday. Many NATO countries use the M-16.

Georgia's government also decided earlier this year to increase the size of its armed forces from about 32,000 to 37,000.

Russia, meanwhile, has strengthened ties in recent months to the two Georgian separatist regions, which Saakashvili has pledged to bring back under Tbilisi's control. No U.N. member state recognizes Abkhazia or South Ossetia's claims to sovereignty.

The current round of tensions have led to clashes in recent months between Georgian authorities and separatists, including a July 9 skirmish on Abkhazia's de-facto border that injured two Abkhaz separatist troops and three Georgian policemen.

Russian fighter jets circled over South Ossetia during a visit to Tbilisi by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this month. Later, Georgia threatened to shoot down any Russian planes that violated its air space.

The same day Immediate Response began, the Russian military announced that it had launched its own military training exercise in its nearby North Caucasus region. A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry denied there was any connection between those exercises and the U.S.-Georgian training effort.

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Russian Jet Bombs Military Airfield in Marneuli
A Russian military aircraft has bombed a military airfield in Marneuli, south of Tbilisi, Georgian media sources reported.

The airfield runaway has reportedly been damaged.

Earlier the Georgian side said its military base in Vaziani outside Tbilisi was bombed by Russian aircraft.

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Georgian leader says Russian tanks enter Georgia
TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia on Friday of making an incursion into Georgian territory, saying heavy Russian armor was rolling into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

"One hundred fifty Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles have entered South Ossetia," he told a news briefing. "This is a clear intrusion on another country's territory. We have Russian tanks on our territory, jets on our territory in broad daylight."

"I must also tell you that Georgian forces have downed two Russian jet fighters over Georgia's territory," he added without giving further details.


 



 
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