Russia tightens the noose

Troops are sent deep into Georgia amid claims that Moscow is mounting a coup
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The Independent Online

Russian troops invaded Georgia proper yesterday after building up their military presence in two breakaway regions of the pro-Western state, prompting the Georgian President to accuse Russia of attempting the "cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder" of his country.

Russian military columns were said to have gone forward from Abkhazia, where they have intervened in favour of separatist forces, to capture the towns of Zugdidi and Senaki, which are inside Georgia itself. The developments contradicted statements by the Russian President, and military leadership, that Russian forces would confine their war aims to South Ossetia.

As the conflict escalated, Georgia's President, Mikheil Saakashvili, appealed for international intervention to prevent what he claimed was in effect the annexation of Georgia by Russia. He appeared at the presidential palace in the capital, Tbilisi, to tell reporters: "It is so clear what is happening. We are in the process of invasion, occupation and annihilation of an independent democratic country. We are in the process of the destruction of world order as it was established after the end of the Cold War."

But in defiance of a chorus of international condemnation, Russian forces thrust deeper inside the former Soviet republic, seizing strategic positions in a signal that Moscow intended to hold its gains in the five-day-old war in defiance of international appeals for a ceasefire, and was also prepared for escalating confrontation with the United States.

In a statement last night President George Bush said: "I am deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori, and are threatening the Georgian capital Tblisi."

He cited evidence suggesting that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city.

"If these reports are accurate, these Russian actions would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia," Mr Bush added. He said the actions "would be inconsistent with assurances that we have received from Russia that its objectives were limited" to restoring peace in separatist pro-Russian areas. Witnesses confirmed claims that the Georgian Interior Ministry in Zugdidi was in Russian hands. The Russian Defence Ministry, meanwhile, justified the operation in Senaki saying it was aimed at preventing Georgian forces from regrouping to carry out new attacks on South Ossetia, where Georgian forces launched their assault on Thursday night.

A Russian fleet is already positioned off Poti, a key trading port for Georgia, and the deployment put the port within range of Russian guns on the landside. At the same time, Georgian forces to the west of Abkhazia were given an ultimatum by Russian commanders to disarm or face military action. The deputy foreign minister of the separatist Abkhaz government told The Independent: "All the Russian troops who arrived by ship have crossed over to Zugdidi."

Last night, the Georgian government claimed that Russian forces had also captured Gori, a city on the route from South Ossetia, the scene of fierce fighting, to Tbilisi. Alexander Lomaia, the secretary general of the Georgian security council, announced: "They have captured Gori." However, soon afterwards an adviser to the government said that was not the case and a resident, Shota Khodzhashvili, confirmed: "The city is deserted but there are no Russians here."

Mr Saakashvili had earlier described Gori, 45 miles from Tbilisi, as the gateway to the capital as he repeated claims that the aim of the Russian military operation was to topple his government. Asked whether he feared the Kremlin intended to annex permanently the restive region of South Ossetia, Mr Saakashvili said: "It's not South Ossetia only, but the whole of Georgia."

As Russia continued to pour armour into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Mr Saakashvili said that the invasion must have been planned in advance. A US official levelled a similar accusation against the Russians. US deputy assistant secretary of state Matt Bryza said after he arrived in Tbilisi to join officials attempting to broker a ceasefire: "We heard statements saying that the Russian railroad troops that entered Abkhazia a couple of months ago were there for a humanitarian mission. Now we know the truth ... these forces were there ... to aid a Russian invasion."

The conflict intensified as Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, and colleagues from the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations held emergency talks on their call for a negotiated end to the conflict.

Mr Saakashvili has accepted the conditions of an EU-designed peace plan calling for an immediate ceasefire, medical and humanitarian aid for victims of the violence and the controlled withdrawal of forces from both sides. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who has framed the plan, is due in Tbilisi and Moscow today.

According to diplomats, however, Russia has rejected pulling back its forces insisting that would put the minorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in danger from Georgian retribution. Moscow backed this up by sending more troops and armour into Abkhazia. The West appears unwilling to sacrifice its relations with Russia in favour of Georgia.

Gordon Brown urged Russia to reciprocate Georgia's offer of a ceasefire, saying: "There is a clear responsibility on the Russian government to bring this conflict quickly to an end." David Cameron, the Conservative leader, accused Russia of acting like a "dangerous bully".

A statement last night from the Georgian Embassy in London said: Russian actions in Georgia "have nothing to do with the enforcement of peace" and are a "pre-planned strategy aimed at conquering Georgia".

Abkhazia: the statistics

Current status

Break-away region of Georgia. Declared independence 1999. Not recognised internationally.

History

Once part of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, Abkhazia converted to Christianity during the sixth century. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Islam also became a major religion. Annexed by Russia in 1864, it was made part of Georgia by the Soviet Union in 1931.

Political leadership

President is Sergeo Bagapsh, who was elected in 2005. He previously served as prime minister from 1997 to 1999.

Population (1991)

Approximately 250,000

Major languages

Russian, Georgian, Abkhaz

Geography

Abkhazia covers an area of about 5,343 miles at the western end of Georgia. The Caucasus Mountains to the north and the northeast divide Abkhazia from the Russian Federation. To the east and south-east, Abkhazia is bounded by the Georgian region of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti; and on the south and south-west by the Black Sea.

Capital

Sukhumi

Natural resources

Agricultural – primarily citrus fruit, tobacco, tea, timber; some coal, hydro-electric power, tourism

Currency

Rouble

Major religions

Christianity, Islam

What to see

Once a popular Soviet seaside resort, Abkhazia is also famous for its monasteries, such as the New Athos.

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