ISTANBUL - TDN with wire dispatches
Tensions over Georgia's rebel territory of South Ossetia exploded Friday when Georgia tried to assert control over the region with tanks and rockets, while Russia sent forces to repel the assault.
Fighting between Georgian forces and Russian-backed separatists raged in and around Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, after Tbilisi sent troops to take back the territory, which broke away in the 1990s. Over 150 Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles have entered South Ossetia, according to the Georgian president.
"Units of the 58th army have set off to help Russian peacekeepers and they are now close to Tskhinvali," Russian RIA news agency quoted the deputy commander of the ground forces, Igor Konashenkov, as saying.
A senior Georgian security official said Russian jets had bombed the Vaziani military airbase outside the Georgian capital Tbilisi, and President Mikheil Saakashvili said 150 Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles had entered South Ossetia from neighboring Russia.
He also said Georgian forces had downed two Russian jets.
RIA quoted a source in the regional Russian military headquarters as saying Russian armor had rolled into Tskhinvali, which Georgia had earlier claimed to have "freed". There was no immediate confirmation from Russia that it had sent bombers.
Ten Russian peacekeepers were killed and 30 wounded when their barracks were hit in Georgian shelling, said Russian Ground Forces spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov. Separatist officials in South Ossetia said 15 civilians had been killed in fighting overnight, and Georgian officials said seven civilians were wounded in bombing raids by Russia.
NATO, the European Union and the United States -- a vocal Georgian ally all urged a halt to the bloodshed, while Moscow vowed to respond after it said several Russian peacekeepers were killed by Georgian artillery fire.
Turkey also urged an end to hostilities in neighboring Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia, calling for dialogue to resolve the escalating conflict. Turkey "calls on the parties to stop military action and negotiate directly with each other," a Foreign Ministry statement said. The "grave" developments in South Ossetia represent "a conflict environment that could threaten regional peace and security," the statement said.
'Strike could backfire':
The crisis -- the first to confront Russian President Dmitry Medvedev since he took office in May -- looked close to spiraling into full-blown war in a region emerging as a key energy transit route, one which Russia and the West are vying for influence over.
The latest military offensive to regain control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia could backfire, said Sezai Babakuş, a dominant figure in the Abkhazian community in Turkey and the founder of the Celebrity Speakers Association, or CSA. He told the Turkish Daily News that the consequences of the fighting could throw the Saakashvili government into further political turmoil.
Babakuş, who also worked for Abkhazia's separatist government between 1990 and 1996, said: �Turkey has both historical, cultural and traditional relationship with Caucasia, so we expect neutral attitude from Turkey governments toward the dispute between Tbilisi and breakaway regions, which will also prompts peace drive in the region. Until now, Turkey cannot achieve these goals, but it's still not late.�
A Central Asia expert at the Ankara-based think tank Global Strategy, Aslan Yavuzşir, also agreed with Babakuş and added, �Turkey should benefit from its potential and historic relationship to develop fresh solutions for Caucasia crisis. But as we witnessed in the past, Turkey generally prefers non-reacting approach toward the Caucasian disagreement.�
Yavuzşir also drew attention to the international community's response to the latest military offensive saying it was �hypocritical.�
�Leaders around the world condemned the strike and call for peaceful solutions. But the United States and Georgia last week launched a joint military exercise in the South Caucasus state, while Russian troops were taking part in a drill in the nearby region. Tbilisi cannot attempt this adventure if it does not has backing from the international community,� he said.
"This is a clear intrusion on another country's territory. We have Russian tanks on our territory, jets on our territory in broad daylight," Saakashvili told reporters in Tbilisi. He ordered a full-scale mobilization of military reservists.
He said late Friday that Russia was fighting a war with his country and that Georgians were "looking with hope" to America, but he did not specifically appeal for U.S. help.
"We have Russian tanks moving in. We have continuous Russian bombardment since yesterday ... specifically targeting the civilian population," Saakashvili said in an interview with CNN. "Russia is fighting a war with us in our own territory."
The roar of warplanes and the explosions of heavy shells were deafening more than three kilometers (two miles) away from Tskhinvali. Many houses were ablaze.
Russia's benchmark equity index fell more than 4 percent to a 14-month low, while the ruble lost over 1 percent against a basket of 0.45 euros and 0.55 dollars.
Medvedev vowed to defend Russian "compatriots" in South Ossetia, whose separatist administration is supported by Russia, and where most people have been given Russian passports.
"We will not allow their deaths to go unpunished," Interfax quoted him as saying.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, urged the two sides to set up a "humanitarian corridor" to evacuate civilians and the wounded.
Georgia said its operation, launched after a week of clashes between separatists and Georgian troops in which nearly 20 people were killed, was aimed at ending South Ossetia's effective independence, won in a 1991-92 war.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, visiting Beijing, said Georgia had used heavy armor and artillery. "The Georgian leadership has resorted to very aggressive actions, he said. "There are casualties, including among Russian peacekeepers. This is very sad and this will incur a response."
The Kremlin said Medvedev had summoned his top security advisers to discuss how to restore peace and defend civilians "within the peacekeeping mandate we have."
At an emergency session of the United Nations on Thursday night, Russia failed to push through a statement that would have called on both sides to stop fighting immediately.
Council diplomats said a phrase calling on all sides to "renounce the use of force" had been unacceptable to the Georgians, backed by the United States and the Europeans.