|"Bodies are lying everywhere.
By Mark Franchetti, Moscow
Times" -- - OLEG KALCHAKEYEV sighed with
relief as he watched the evening news on Thursday.
The reports told of renewed skir-mishes between separatist
rebels seeking South Ossetian independence and the Georgian army
– but also revealed that Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s
president, had declared a ceasefire. On Friday, so the young
leader said, the two sides would sit down to negotiate.
Kalchakeyev, a car mechanic from Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian
capital, told his son: “At least we’ll be able to watch the
Only a few hours later, however, shortly before dawn,
Kalchakeyev woke up to the sound of explosions. He looked out of
the window and saw the night sky over Tskhinvali filled with
tracer fire. A barrage of Grad and Katyusha rockets followed.
It is unclear who first violated the ceasefire, but less than eight hours
after Saakashvili’s pledge, the Georgian president had ordered
his troops to retake South Ossetia by force.
“Suddenly there was a massive explosion which hit a house
down the road from us,” said Kalchakeyev, who managed to flee
across the border to Russia.
“Our windows shattered and I jumped for cover. I grabbed my
son and wife and ran down to the basement, where I was joined by
dozens of other civilians. The bombing only got worse. It was
relentless and went on for hours. I never thought it would come
to this – Georgians bombing us – not in my wildest imagination.”
As Vladimir Putin and George W Bush gathered with world
leaders at the so-called bird’s nest stadium in Beijing for the
Olympic opening ceremony, war was breaking out between Putin’s
Russia and Bush’s client state Georgia.
Within hours, Russia sent its tanks rampaging into South
Ossetia – even though it still officially recognises it as
Georgian sovereign territory – and yesterday it ordered its air
force to attack Georgian targets.
Apartment blocks were on fire in Gori, 15 miles from South
Ossetia. Afterwards, a woman knelt in the street and screamed
over the body of a dead man.
Another old woman covered in blood stared into the distance,
and a man knelt by the road, his head in his hands.
“Why do I have to go through this again?” asked one woman,
who said she had survived the second world war. “Why can’t we
just live in peace?”
A wave of shock and apprehension gripped the region as
survivors asked themselves whether Georgia was about to follow
Chechnya into another Caucasian war.
Yesterday it emerged that Tskhinvali, a quiet, small town,
had been all but destroyed by the initial Georgian attack on
As a barrage of artillery fell on its outskirts, Georgian
tanks moved into the centre, where they were met with fierce
resistance from South Ossetian separatist rebels.
“Georgian snipers are taking down anything that moves, even
outside the town’s hospital, which is making it hard to deliver
the wounded. They are not sparing anyone,” claimed a South
Ossetian government spokesman.
The presidential palace of a region of only 70,000
inhabitants was in flames as intense hand-to-hand fighting broke
out across the town. Ordinary apartment blocks were pounded as
the remains of Georgian tanks struck by rocket-propelled
grenades stood burning in the middle of the street.
“It’s hell,” said Zara Valiyeva, a local journalist trapped
in the city. “Houses are being hit around us by rockets. We have
no food but it’s too dangerous to go out.”
Battered Ladas delivered the wounded to the town’s hospital,
which according to several reports was also badly hit.
“There were bodies lying everywhere, in the streets, around
ruined buildings, in cars. There is hardly a single building
left undamaged,” said Ludmilla, a woman who fled the town during
“The city is burning,” stated a local resident, Oleg
Repukhov, in a text message from a basement he took refuge in.
“Grad missiles are falling. They are taking the city. We are
running out of ammunition. Where’s our f***ing help!!?” he wrote
before the line went down.
“We never thought this could happen,” said Fatima Kochieva, a
47-year-old mother of two who lived on Tskhinvali’s southern
outskirts, where the first Georgian artillery shells landed. “It
all happened so quickly. Suddenly we were in the middle of heavy
fighting. I saw our neighbour’s house get a direct hit. I took
cover with the kids in the basement. It was terrifying.”
It took the Georgian army, which in the past few years has
received US training and equipment, only a few hours to take the
Huge bomb craters cut through the streets. Blackened
Soviet-era apartment block buildings were in flames; dead bodies
of fighters and civilians lay on the ground amid the rubble. The
remains of Georgian armed vehicles hit by grenades lay upside
down close to the central square. Power and water supplies were
“The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many
wounded,” said Zaid Tsarnayev, a resident. “I was in the
hospital on Friday where I saw many civilian wounded. The
hospital was later destroyed by a Georgian jet.”
Russia’s response to the crisis was swift. Tank columns from
the 58th army rolled across the border into South Ossetia.
Backed by Russian fighter jets that pounded the Georgian army’s
position, they quickly advanced towards Tskhinvali.
“Russia will not close its eyes on the deaths of Russian
citizens in South Ossetia,” warned Dmitry Medvedev, the new
Hundreds of volunteers from across the Caucasus – including
scores of Cossacks – continued to cross into the disputed
enclave to help the South Ossetian separatists.
Yesterday morning the Russians stepped up the pressure by
sending in their Spetsnaz special forces. Clashes were reported
in and around Tskhinvali but by midday the Russians had pushed
the Georgians back, establishing a big military presence that
Moscow will argue needs to stay for the fore-seeable future as a
Georgia’s interior ministry claimed that Russian warplanes
had bombed a military base on the outskirts of the Georgian
capital, Tbilisi, and three military bases on the Black Sea port
of Poti. Russia denied the claims. Georgia also claimed to have
shot down 10 Russian planes. The Russians said they had lost
It was when Russian jets attacked Gori, a small Georgian town
to the south of the fighting, that the worst bloodshed occurred.
Richard Galpin of the BBC was the first foreign reporter on
the scene. He said: “We saw the impact of the air strikes –
buildings on fire. We could hear the Russian jets above us. In
one strike the pilot missed the intended military base, instead
hitting two apartment blocks.
“When we arrived, flames were pouring out of the buildings
and people were still trapped inside. We saw injured civilians
being pulled from the buildings.”
Roots of the conflict
Why is the Caucasus so important?
Because it is the only route for Central Asian oil supplies
that does not cross Russia. Throughout the 19th century Russia
fought wars to control the region and Moscow considers the area
a key part of its sphere of influence.
Why does South Ossetia want to break away?
Most of its people speak their own language and feel closer
to the Russians than the Georgians. They say they were absorbed
into Georgia after the fall of the old Soviet Union. The 70,000
South Ossetians want independence – just like Kosovo, the
breakaway Serbian province.
Why are the Georgians so upset about South Ossetia?
Because they see it as a Russian outpost funded largely from
Moscow, and where most people carry Russian passports.
Why has Georgia’s president chosen to raise the issue now?
Because he thought everyone was focused on the Olympics and
the Russians would hesitate to respond with force.
Why has Russia been willing to go to war?
The Kremlin is angry about western, particularly American
military support for Georgia, its desire to join Nato and US
plans for a missile defence shield in Europe.
Will anyone else intervene?
Unlikely, western armies are busy and the prospect of taking
on Russia is not enticing.
What happens next?
The Georgians will back down looking like the bad guys. Both
sides will go back to hating each other. Result: Russia 1,
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