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Verge of War?

DW staff (win)August 8, 2008

The United Nations Security Council called an emergency session on Friday as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that Russia was "fighting a war" with Georgia over its breakaway province South Ossetia.

Georgian and Russian flags
Thousands are fleeing South Ossetia as Russian and Georgian forces exchange fireImage: AP

Russian and Georgian armed forces were locked in combat on Friday, Aug. 8, over control of the Caucasus region South Ossetia, with hundreds of civilians reported killed or injured.

Eduard Kokoity, South Ossetia's leader, said more than 1,400 civilians had died as a result of the combat beginning in sporadic firefights on Aug. 1, and shifting to full-blown warfare early on Thursday.

Eduard Kokoity
Eduard Kokoity wants independence for South OssetiaImage: picture-alliance /dpa

Georgian fire killed at least 10 Russian peacekeepers stationed in the breakaway Georgian province in severe fighting centered in the South Ossetian capital city Tskhinvali, Russian army spokesmen said.

Georgian diplomats contradicted Kokoity's estimates, saying known civilian loss of life in the town was less than 20, and injured in the dozens.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in a nationwide television statement said his country's troops controlled a "large part of South Ossetia" and have "liberated" Tskhinvali.

In an interview with CNN, Saakashvili said that Georgia and Russia were practically at war.

"We have Russian tanks moving in," he said. "We have continuous Russian bombardment since yesterday ... specifically targeting the civilian population. Russia is fighting a war with us in our own territory."

Russians assist South Ossetians

Russian army sources said Russian artillery and tank fire had halted a Georgian offensive into the region that began Thursday, inflicted substantial casualties on Georgian forces, and were assisting a South Ossetian counterattack.

A map of Georgia and the region

Artillery, mortars, tanks, ground attack aircraft, helicopters and salvo rocket launchers were among the weapons reportedly used by one or both of the warring sides in house-to-house fighting in the city, and in regions around it.

Russian artillery deployed on the north side of Tskhinvali fired directly on Georgian artillery in the mid-afternoon, forcing a Georgian retreat from the city center, according to Russian army spokespeople.

Massive damage

Georgian soldiers in South Ossetia
Georgian soldiers in South OssetiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Georgian television early evening on Friday aired images seemingly showing Tskhinvali's center fully under Georgian control. Georgian media also reported a pair of Russian aircraft shot down earlier in the day -- a claim flatly denied by the Kremlin.

Russian air force combat operations over Georgia appeared, however, to be an established fact, with a strike by Su-25 ground attack aircraft against a Georgian military base near the town of Gori confirmed by Georgian officials, without giving information of the effects of the bombing.

Tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery and support elements of Russia's 58th army began entering South Ossetia by mid-morning. Russian diplomats described the de facto intervention as "support to Russian peacekeepers" and "protection of the local population."

News reports from Russia and Georgia both told of massive damage to offices and homes throughout Tskhinvali. Eyewitnesses described entire city blocks as flattened by shelling.

Georgian television showed images of soldiers wounded in the fighting, but gave no casualty numbers.

Protecting Russians

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking earlier in the day, said Russia had no choice but to take action to protect its citizens.

"We will not let the deaths of our citizens go unpunished, the guilty will incur the punishment they deserve," Medvedev said in his first statement since heavy fighting erupted, claiming six casualties in weekend clashes.

Saakashvili pointing to the right with a Georgian flag in the background
Saakashvili says Georgia is a peace-loving countryImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

On the Georgian side, Saakashvili's national televised address called for full mobilization.

"Hundreds of thousands of Georgians should stand together to save Georgia," he said.

Television images on Friday showed long Georgian military convoys heading towards South Ossetia and also Abkhazia, a second renegade Georgian province supported by Moscow.

The pro-Western Saakashvili, who with US backing is bidding for Georgia to join NATO, has made re-asserting control over both the rebellious regions a top priority of his presidency.

South Ossetia had become a lawless region ruled by bandits and dangerous to regional stability and Georgia's right to assert state control over the province was guaranteed under the Georgian constitution, Saakashvili argued.

Moscow, in turn, has been angered by the former Soviet country's rapprochement with the alliance and moved to strengthen ties with the rebel government. The Kremlin's support to South Ossetia has long been seen in Tbilisi as a first Russian step towards de facto annexation of the Georgian territory.

Over 2,500 Russian peacekeeping troops have been stationed in the province since a 1994 ceasefire ending fighting between the Georgian army and Ossetian separatists.

UN Security Council to meet

Security Council in session
The UN Security Council is resuming talks in a bid for a ceasefire in South OssetiaImage: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

The United Nations Security Council has called another emergency meeting scheduled for Friday afternoon in New York, after failing on Thursday night to agree on a response to the escalation of violence in Georgia.

Thursday's late night meeting was called by Russia, whose ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, accused Georgia of aggressive behavior toward the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Friday's meeting has been requested by Georgia, whose ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania said that the threat to the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be addressed immediately.

Alasania, in a letter to the council's president, said Russian troops had invaded Georgian territory and Russian planes had bombed targets in the country.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the latest fighting in a statement issued on Thursday in New York and urged warring parties to refrain from action that could endanger stability in their region.

For information on international reactions and an analysis of the escalating violence in South Ossetia, please click on the links below.