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Georgia crisis :: Violence in South Ossetia

Escalating tensions between Georgia and its breakaway province of South Ossetia have erupted into serious fighting.

The separatist administration in South Ossetia has been trying to gain formal independence since breaking away in a civil war in the 1990s.

Russia has troops in the region, on a peacekeeping mandate. But Moscow also supports the separatists.
What is the status of South Ossetia?

South Ossetia has run its own affairs since fighting for independence from Georgia in 1991-92, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It has declared independence, though this has not been recognised by any other country.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to bring South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, back under full Georgian control.
Why do Ossetians want to break away?

The Ossetians are a distinct ethnic group originally from the Russian plains just south of the Don river. In the 13th Century, they were pushed southwards by Mongol invasions into the Caucasus mountains, settling along the border with Georgia.
South Ossetians want to join up with their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia, which is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation.

Ethnic Georgians are a minority in South Ossetia, accounting for less than one-third of the population.

But Georgia rejects even the name, South Ossetia, preferring to call it by the ancient name of Samachablo, or Tskhinvali, after its main city.
What triggered the latest crisis?

Tension has risen since the election of President Saakashvili in 2004. He offered South Ossetia dialogue and autonomy within a single Georgian state – but in 2006 South Ossetians voted in an unofficial referendum to press their demands for complete independence.

In April 2008 Nato said Georgia would be allowed to join the alliance at some point – angering Russia, which opposes the eastward expansion of Nato. Weeks later, Russia stepped up ties with the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In July Russia admitted its fighter jets entered Georgian airspace over South Ossetia to “cool hot heads in Tbilisi”. Occasional clashes escalated, until six people were reportedly killed by Georgian shelling. Attempts to reach a ceasefire quickly collapsed.
Could Russia become directly involved in war?

Russia insists it has been acting as a peacekeeper in South Ossetia, rejecting Georgian accusations that it has been supplying arms to the separatists.

However, it has vowed to defend its citizens in South Ossetia – of which there are many. More than half of South Ossetia’s 70,000 citizens are said to have taken up Moscow’s offer of a Russian passport.

Russia may view limited military intervention as less risky than recognising South Ossetia’s independence, which could lead to all-out war with Georgia.
What about Georgia’s links to Nato?

President Saakashvili has made membership of Nato one of his main goals. Georgia has a close relationship with the United States and has been cultivating ties with Western Europe.

There are those who believe that Mr Saakashvili may be hoping to draw Nato into a conflict with Moscow, making their alliance a formal one.

But analysts say it is difficult to imagine Nato allowing itself to be drawn into a direct conflict with its Cold War rival after managing to avoid that for so long.

Russia and Georgia have accused each other of launching new attacks, as diplomats press for a ceasefire in the conflict over South Ossetia.

Georgia said dozens of Russian bombers were attacking targets inside its territory, including around Tbilisi.

Russia said Georgian attacks on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali killed three of its troops.

But an EU delegation visiting Tbilisi said Georgia’s president had signed a draft proposal for a ceasefire.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the BBC that Mr Saakashvili had accepted EU proposals for a ceasefire, controlled withdrawals of troops on both sides and eventual political talks.

The delegation would now go to Moscow, Mr Kouchner said, to convince President Dmitry Medvedev to back the plan.

Earlier, Mr Medvedev said Russian troops were in control of Tskhinvali and Moscow’s military push was “largely complete”.

But the head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Alexander Stubb, accompanying Mr Kouchner, said he could not predict when the conflict would end, saying only that he was “optimistic” a cessation of violence could begin “in the next few days”.
Targets hit

Fighting over South Ossetia erupted late last week when Georgia launched an overnight assault on the territory, which has had de facto independence since the end of a war in 1992.

Russia, which supports the breakaway province, hit back, bombing targets throughout Georgia.

The latest reports of violence came despite Georgia saying on Sunday that it would observe a ceasefire. Moscow has insisted Georgian forces withdraw fully from South Ossetia before it halts operations.

From Tbilisi, Georgia said up to 50 Russian fighter jets attacked targets inside Georgia overnight, with targets including a missile base and a radar station.

Georgia said the town of Gori, close to the South Ossetian border and used as a jumping-off point for Georgia’s push into South Ossetia, also came under overnight attack.

Elsewhere in Georgia, tensions were rising in Abkhazia, another separatist region.

Reports said a Russian general issued an ultimatum to Georgian forces to pull out of Abkhazia’s Kodori Gorge or Russian would send in its troops. Earlier, reports in Moscow said 9,000 Russian troops were being deployed to Abkhazia.

On Sunday, separatist leaders in Abkhazia announced a full mobilisation in order to drive Georgian troops from part of the region, and gave them a deadline to leave.

Georgia has accused Russia of landing 4,000 more troops in Abkhazia via the Black Sea. The separatists said Georgia had deployed a similar number of soldiers south of the Abkhaz border.
‘Very firm’

Overnight, US President George W Bush was strongly critical of Russia’s military strikes against Georgia.

Speaking in Beijing, US President Bush told NBC TV that he had spoken frankly to Vladimir Putin when the pair met at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games last week.

“I said this violence is unacceptable,” Mr Bush said, adding: “I was very firm with Vladimir Putin. Hopefully this will get resolved peacefully.”

However, in a telephone call to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, said Russian aggression “must not go unanswered”.

Mr Cheney said the continuation of violence against Georgia would have serious consequences for Russia’s relations with the US, as well as the international community.

But White House officials refused to speculate on what America might do if the Russian military action continued.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has called on the parties to the conflict to grant safe passage to civilians trying to escape the war zone.

The UNHCR estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 people have been displaced within Georgia, including South Ossetia, while Russia has said that a further 30,000 people have fled north into the Russian province of North Ossetia.

Total personnel: 26,900
Main battle tanks (T-72): 82
Armoured personnel carriers: 139
Combat aircraft (Su-25): Seven
Heavy artillery pieces (including Grad rocket launchers): 95
Total personnel: 641,000
Main battle tanks (various): 6,717
Armoured personnel carriers: 6,388
Combat aircraft (various): 1,206
Heavy artillery pieces (various): 7,550
Source: BBC

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