The Caucasus was on the brink of a full-scale war last night as reports came in that Georgia had mounted a large-scale attack to win back its breakaway region of South Ossetia.
According to the Russian agency Interfax, a large group of Georgian soldiers moved towards the breakaway capital, Tskhinvali, late in the evening.
The separatist President, Eduard Kokoity, told the agency that "the storming of Tskhinvali has started" and said that separatist forces were engaged with the Georgian army on the roads into the city. A statement on the separatist government's website said: "The assault is coming from all directions."
The fear is that Russia could be drawn into the conflict, with previous foreign ministry statements saying that Russia could not remain "indifferent" to an armed skirmish on its southern border. Already late last night there were reports that hundreds of volunteers were on their way from North Ossetia, which is part of Russia, through the Caucasus Mountains to join their ethnic kin in South Ossetia. The leadership of Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway state, said that 1,000 volunteers from Abkhazia were also on their way.
South Ossetia is a tiny territory with a population of around 50,000, which broke away from Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of the region is under the control of separatist authorities but the central Georgian government in Tbilisi controls several villages. Tensions have been high in recent months, with frequent exchanges of fire between the sides, but so far all-out war has been avoided. An exchange of fire on Wednesday night left at least one person dead and many injured.
The West has supported Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who wants to bring his country out of Russia's orbit and into Nato, in his drive to reintegrate the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia's fold. However, any military action could harm the country's chances of Nato accession. Russia has provided financial support to the separatist authorities.
It now seems the Georgians may have tired of negotiations and decided to take matters into their own hands. But the timing is bizarre. Negotiations between the separatist authorities and a Georgian minister were planned for this afternoon, and the attack on Tskhinvali came just hours after Mr Saakashvili had announced a unilateral ceasefire on live television.
"I want to acknowledge that several hours ago I, as a supreme commander, have issued a very painful order not to return fire in response to a very intensive shelling [of Georgian villages]," said the Georgian President yesterday evening.
But the ceasefire lasted only hours and Mr Kokoity called Mr Saakashvili's ceasefire a "despicable and treacherous" ruse.
"Despite our call for peace and a unilateral ceasefire, separatists continued the shelling of Georgian villages," said Georgian commander Mamuka Kurashvili. "We are forced to restore constitutional order in the whole region."
And Moscow reacted furiously to the news. "The actions by Georgia in South Ossetia bear witness to the fact that the leadership of that country can no longer be trusted," said a foreign ministry statement.
The Georgian government said it had information about "hundreds of mercenaries, tanks and other equipment" entering South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel from Russia.Reuse content