Russians in control of South Ossetian capital(Third lead)

August 10th, 2008 - 11:26 pm ICT by IANS  

Moscow/Tbilisi, Aug 10 (DPA) After three days of fighting between Georgian and Russian troops in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Russian troops were in control of the capital Tskhinvali Sunday. Georgian forces have completely withdrawn from Tskhinvali, the Russian military said Sunday, thereby confirming earlier accounts by Georgia that its forces had withdrawn from the city. But Tbilisi denied that its forces had completely pulled out of South Ossetia.

The ground fighting between Russian and Georgian forces had been the fiercest at Tskhinvali, in infantry battles throughout the night as Russian forces engaged Georgian troops holding heights overlooking the town.

“We’re not fighting against the Georgian state, rather instead carrying out a peace mission,” a member of the Russian general staff, Anatoli Nogowizyn, said in Moscow Sunday.

Around 10,000 Russian troops and 300 tanks are now in South Ossetia, Georgian television station Rustawi2 reported.

Russia Sunday intensified airstrikes and a naval blockade against Georgia, as international diplomats sought ways to bring a ceasefire to the Caucasus province South Ossetia.

Georgia claimed Sunday that 15 of its cities have been bombarded by Russia.

Aleksander Lomaia, secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, described a widening conflict in a telephone conference call with journalists.

“We are dealing with a total Russian aggression and invasion - on land, air and at sea,” Lomaia said.

Three Russian air force Su-25 bombers struck an airfield adjacent to a military aircraft factory outside the Georgian capital Tbilisi shortly after dawn, causing damage but inflicting no casualties, a senior Georgian official said.

Russian bombers also struck a Georgian military base near the town of Bolnisi and in the remote Kodori valley near the border of Abkhazia. UN observers quit the gorge later in the day, according to Rustaveli-2 and Vesti-24 television reports.

The war widened Saturday with Abkhazia, like South Ossetia a separatist Georgian province supported by Moscow, attacking Georgian forces.

Warships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet by Sunday morning had clamped down a naval blockade on Georgia’s coastline, turning back “several civilian ships,” said Aleksander Lomaia, Georgia’s National Security Council Chief, in a statement.

Among freighters halted with warning shots was a Moldovan-flagged vessel carrying wheat to the port Poti, threatening Georgia’s food supplies, Lomaia claimed.

Georgian intelligence gave the elements of the Russian squadron as three amphibious assault vessels, two anti-submarine warfare vessels, a reconnaissance ship, two minesweepers, two missile boats, and a missile cruiser.

The Russian flotilla is substantially larger than Georgia’s tiny navy, currently bottled up in Poti.

Lomaia, Georgia’s National Security Council chief, called the retreat “a relocation to other positions”.

Heavy artillery fire on the city, a feature of fighting since the war’s outbreak, had practically halted by early Sunday morning, according to a South Ossetia army statement.

Some civilians remained trapped in the city, most of whose buildings are now badly damaged or destroyed, witnesses said.

Corpses in some cases three days old still were lying in Tskhinvali’s streets, as artillery fire from both sides made burial impossible, the Interfax news agency reported.

Georgia gave its military losses as of Saturday at some 50 men dead and 450 wounded. Russia had admitted to 12 men dead and 150 injured.

Estimates of civilian dead in the fighting have exceeded 1,600 people. The Tskhinvali town hospital alone as of Sunday morning was treating 200 injured and had more than 50 dead in its morgue, according to the report.

It is estimated that more than 30,000 people have fled the crisis zone to neighbouring North Ossetia.

Some 2,000 Russian paratroopers and Spetsnaz special forces infantry backed by artillery and tanks threw Georgian forces out of the town Saturday in intense house-to-house fighting.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a Saturday visit to Russia’s 58th Army headquarters in Vladkavkaz said the Kremlin’s intention was to push out or destroy all Georgian forces in South Ossetia. He justified the Russian offensive as part of a peacekeeping operation.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili the same day accused Russia of conducting all-out war against Georgia, pointing to airstrikes and a naval blockade outside the South Ossetia region.

The international community has failed to produce any practical means towards reaching a ceasefire in the four-day-old conflict. The UN’s Security Council Saturday met in emergency session on South Ossetia and, for the third day in a row, was unable to decide even on a common position statement, because of differences between Russia and the US.

Volodymyr Ohryzko, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, flew into Tbilisi Sunday morning. His mission was to act, if possible, as an intermediary in dialogue between the Russian and Georgian government, according to a Ukraine Foreign Ministry statement.

Russia’s government was by the weekend moving quickly towards establishing even tighter links with the South Ossetia regime, with Putin announcing Moscow would spend a half billion dollars to rebuild Tskhinvali, and provincial Russian agencies offering aid to an estimated 34,000 refugees from the fighting.

Russia not only would provide the refugees food and shelter, but make sure that children now living in temporary housing or with relatives on the Russian side of the border, would start their school year on time, Putin said during a Sunday visit to the Russian city Gorkiy.

Georgia Saturday said it was recalling a 2,000-man infantry brigade currently serving in Iraq and accounted the Georgian army’s most effective fighting force.

Its return home would, however, be problematic, with a Russian blockade likely to prevent shipment of the brigade’s heavy equipment home by sea, and the Russian air force potentially able to intercept any passenger flight from Iraq to Georgia.

Georgian media reported that US aircraft might carry the Georgian infantrymen home, placing Washington and Moscow on a collision course.

Another potential flashpoint for a widening of the war was in the Black Sea near the Georgian port Batumi, where Turkish warships had taken up station. There had been no reports by Sunday of contact between the Turks, and elements of the Russian navy operating further south.

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