GORI, Georgia – Russian armored vehicles rolled deep into western Georgia on Monday, quickly seizing several towns and a military base and slicing open a damaging second front in Russia’s battle with Georgia. Other Russian forces captured the key central city of Gori.
Fighting also raged Monday around Tskhinvali, the capital of the separatist province of South Ossetia. Swarms of Russian planes launched new raids across Georgia, sending screaming civilians running for cover.
The invasions of Gori and the towns of Senaki, Zugdidi and Kurga came despite a top Russian general’s claim earlier Monday that Russia had no plans to enter Georgian territory. By taking Gori, which sits on Georgia’s only east-west highway, Russia has the potential to effectively cut the country in half.
Security Council head Alexander Lomaia said Monday that it was not immediately clear if Russian forces would try to advance on Tbilisi.
The two-front battlefield was a major escalation in the conflict that blew up late Thursday after a Georgian offensive to regain control of South Ossetia. Even as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili signed a cease-fire pledge with EU mediators on Monday, Russia appeared determined to subdue the small U.S. ally that has been pressing for NATO membership.
On Monday afternoon, Russian troops invaded Georgia from the western separatist province of Abkhazia while most Georgian forces were in the central region around South Ossetia.
Russian armored personnel carriers moved into Senaki, a town 20 miles inland from Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti, Lomaia said.
Russian forces also moved into the Georgian town of Zugdidi and seized police stations, while their Abkhazian separatist allies took control of the nearby village of Kurga, Georgia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.
Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s – and both have close ties with Moscow.
Georgia began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia late Thursday with heavy shelling and air strikes that ravaged its provincial capital of Tskhinvali. The Russia response was swift and overpowering – thousands of troops that shelled the Georgians until they fled Tskhinvali on Sunday, and four days of bombing raids across Georgia.
An AP reporter saw a small group of Georgian fighters open fire on a column of Russian and Ossetian military vehicles outside Tskhinvali, triggering a 30-minute battle. The Russians later said all the Georgians were killed.
Another AP reporter in the village of Tkviavi, 7 1/2 miles south of Tskhinvali inside Georgia, where a Russian Sukhoi bomber hit a house. The walls of neighboring buildings fell as screaming residents ran for cover. Eighteen people were wounded, six of them seriously.
Georgian artillery fire was heard coming from fields about 200 yards away from the village, perhaps the bomber’s target.
Hundreds of Georgian troops headed north along the road toward Tskhinvali, pocked with tank regiments creeping up the highway into South Ossetia. Hundreds of soldiers traveled in trucks in the opposite direction, towing light artillery weapons.
In the city of Gori, where artillery fire could be heard, Georgian soldiers warned local residents that Russian tanks were approaching and advised them to leave. Hundreds of terrified residents fled toward Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, using any means of transport they could find. Many stood along the roadside trying to flag down passing cars.
President Bush and other Western leaders have sharply criticized Russia’s military response as disproportionate and say Russia appears to want the Georgian government overthrown. They have also complained that Russian warplanes – buzzing over Georgia since Friday – have bombed Georgian oil sites and factories far from the conflict zone.
The world’s seven largest economic powers urged Russia to accept an immediate cease-fire Monday and agree to international mediation. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her colleagues from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations spoke by telephone and pledged their support for a negotiated solution to the conflict.
“I’ve expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia,” Bush told NBC Sports.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized the United States for viewing Georgia as the victim, instead of the aggressor, and for airlifting Georgian troops back home from Iraq on Sunday.
“Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shiite villages,” Putin said in Moscow. “And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed 10 Ossetian villages at once, who ran elderly people and children with tanks, who burned civilian alive in their sheds – these leaders must be taken under protection.”
The U.S. military was flying Georgian troops back from Iraq on C-17 aircraft and had informed the Russians about the flights before they began in order to avoid mishaps, said one military official said Monday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the subject on the record.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said Monday morning that U.S. officials expect to have all Georgian troops out of Iraq by the end of the day.
The Georgian president, Saakashvili, signed a cease-fire pledge Monday proposed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Finnish counterpart, Alexander Stubb. The EU envoys were heading to Moscow to try to persuade Russia to accept the cease-fire.
Saakashvili, however, voiced concern that Russia’s true goal was to undermine his pro-Western government, which has sharply angered Moscow by wanting to join NATO. “It’s all about the independence and democracy of Georgia,” he said during a conference call.
Saakashvili said Russia has sent 20,000 troops and 500 tanks into Georgia.
The Georgian president said Russian warplanes were bombing roads and bridges, destroying radar systems and targeting Tbilisi’s civilian airport. One Russian bombing raid struck the Tbilisi airport area just a half-hour before the EU envoys arrived, he said.
Another hit near key Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which carries Caspian crude to the West. No supply interruptions have been reported.
Abkhazia’s separatists called out the army and reservists on Sunday and declared it would push Georgian forces out of the northern part of the Kodori Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian control.
Before invading on Monday, Russia’s deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Georgia must disarm its police in Zugdidi, a town just outside Abkhazia, but insisted “We are not planning any offensive.” At least 9,000 Russian troops and 350 armored vehicles were in Abkhazia.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said more than 2,000 people have been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, most of them Ossetians with Russian passports. The figures could not be independently confirmed, but refugees who fled Tskhinvali said hundreds were killed.
Many refugees sought shelter in the neighboring Russian province of North Ossetia.
“The Georgians burned all of our homes,” said one elderly woman, as she sat on a bench under a tree with three other white-haired survivors. “The Georgians say it is their land. Where is our land, then?”
Associated Press writers Chris Torchia reported from Zugdidi, Georgia; Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia; Douglas Birch from Vladikavkaz, Russia; Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov and Lynn Berry from Moscow; and Pauline Jelinek from Washington.
By DAVID NOWAK Associated Press Writer
Aug. 11, 2008, 12:34PM