Russia imposes naval blockade on Georgia

August 10, 2008 12:00 am

, TBILISI, August 10 – Russian warships have set up a sea blockade to prevent arms and other military supplies from reaching Georgia, Interfax news agency reported Sunday quoting a source in the Russian naval command.

"Our navy sailors have been assigned the task of preventing arms and other military supplies from reaching Georgia by sea," the source said.

Separately, RIA Novosti news agency quoted a senior navy source as denying that a blockade was in effect.

"These reports do not correspond with reality. A coastal blockade would mean war with Georgia. We are not in a state of war with Georgia," the RIA Novosti source said.

Georgian forces, meanwhile, have withdrawn from nearly the entire breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia told AFP on Sunday.

"We have left practically all of South Ossetia as an expression of good will and our willingness to stop military confrontation," he said.

Russia and Georgia were locked Sunday in an escalating battle over South Ossetia with Tbilisi accusing Moscow of pursuing a policy of "annihilation" as it bombed cities across the country.

Georgian and Russian forces exchanged artillery fire overnight, South Ossetia officials said, while Russian planes bombed the runway of a military airfield near Tbilisi international airport according to a Georgian official.

US President George W. Bush led a chorus of international calls to end to the bombardment amid fears the conflict, which may have already claimed over 2,000 lives, might spread to other parts of the volatile Caucasus region.

Russia backs the separatist government in South Ossetia and sent in tanks and troops on Friday in response to pro-Western Georgia’s military offensive to take back the province which broke away in the early 1990s after a separatist war.

Russian and Georgian forces exchanged artillery fire overnight in the capital Tskhinvali, which both sides claim to control, the South Ossetian authorities said in a statement. A South Ossetian spokeswoman said the overnight shelling killed 20 and wounded 150 people.

Russian planes attacked early Sunday the runway of a military airfield near Tbilisi international airport, the secretary of Georgia’s national security council, Alexander Lomaia, told AFP.

On Saturday, Russian aircraft staged raids on the port of Poti and the city of Gori, where inhabitants said scores of people were killed.

Russian naval vessels also arrived Sunday at the port of Ochamchira in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Lomaia said.

Russia has concentrated a large number of armoured vehicles near the border with Georgia at a crossing not directly at the border with South Ossetia, he added.

As the fighting escalated, the leaders of Russia and Georgia stepped up their war of words.

"What they are doing is nothing to do with conflict, it is about annihilation of a democracy on their borders," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an interview with the BBC on Saturday.

Saakashvili declared a "state of war" in his country on Saturday but also offered a ceasefire to Russia.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev said his country had launched its operation to "force the Georgian side into peace." He later said he would order an investigation into accusations by South Ossetian refugees of Georgian acts of genocide.

Fears of the conflict spreading added urgency to international calls for a ceasefire.

A joint European-US mission was due to have arrived in Georgia late Saturday to try to help broker a ceasefire with Russia, Britain said.

But a meeting of the UN Security Council on Saturday failed to agree on a call for an immediate ceasefire.

France, which holds the EU presidency, announced that it would host a meeting of European foreign ministers early next week and an emergency EU summit could be held.

The European Union "strongly states its commitment to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Georgia and its internationally recognised borders and urges Russia to respect them," said a statement released by France.

The EU "underscores that the military actions (against Georgia) could affect EU-Russian relations," it added.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner will visit the region to present settlement proposals, France said.

US President George W. Bush cut into his engagements during a visit to Beijing to call for an end to Russian bombing.

"We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops," Bush told reporters. "We call for an end to the Russian bombings."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon late Saturday called for an immediate end of hostilities and a negotiated settlement of the conflict, urging for both Georgia and Russia to pull out troops from South Ossetia that are not part of authorised peacekeeping forces.

Georgia said a Russian air raid Saturday had "completely devastated" the Black Sea port of Poti in attacks that the country’s UN ambassador likened to "a full-scale military invasion".

This was followed up with air raids on Gori, the main Georgian city closest to South Ossetia, where apartment blocks in Gori were left in flames and residents said scores of people were killed.

The conflict spread to Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia, where the separatist government said its forces had launched attacks on Georgian troops. Georgia accused Russia of staging the attacks in the Kodori Gorge region, the only part of Abkhazia controlled by Georgia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew to the city of Vladikavkaz, close to Russia’s border with Georgia, to meet with South Ossetian refugees and said Russia had been right to launch its offensive.

"From a legal point of view our actions are absolutely well-founded and legitimate and moreover necessary," Putin said, blasting Georgia’s "criminal" leadership.

Upon returning to Moscow he urged an investigation of Georgian actions be opened, saying: "In my opinion they are already elements of some kind of genocide of the Ossetian people."

The conflict with Russia has claimed 150 Georgian lives, Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said Saturday.

Russian officials have said at least 2,000 people have lost their lives in South Ossetia.

South Ossetia broke from Georgia in the early 1990s. It has been a constant source of friction between Georgia and Russia, which opposes Tbilisi’s aspirations of joining NATO and has supported the separatists without recognising their independence. Russia has also granted many South Ossetians citizenship.


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