Not much doubt in Russian media that a war is underway. “Russia has joined the war” reads Gazeta.ru’s headline, in a special section of the online paper called “The War in Ossetia”.
Lenta.ru reports that two tank columns from the 58th army have begun shelling Georgian positions near the town of Tskhinvali.
Georgia’s president said Friday that his country is under attack by Russian tanks and warplanes, and he accused Russia of targeting civilians as tensions over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia appeared to boil over into full-blown conflict.
“This is the worst nightmare one can encounter,” he said.
Asked whether Georgia and Russia were now at war, he said, “My country is in self-defense against Russian aggression. Russian troops invaded Georgia.”
Georgian forces have downed two Russian military jets, Civil Georgia reports.
Also: a Russian warplane has dropped two bombs on the Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, the Georgian Interior Ministry said.
According to a Sky News report,
Russia has sent 150 tanks and armoured vehicles into [South Ossetia] as what started as a regional conflict between Georgia and separatists threatens to build into all-out war.
Russia claims that South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali has been “almost completely destroyed”, while President Dmitry Medvedev has vowed to punish the Georgians if they hurt the province’s people.
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 8 Aug.’08 / 11:38
President Saakashvili said he had announced a general mobilization of reserve troops amid “large-scale military aggression” by Russia.
In a live televised address on August 8, Saakashvili said Georgian government troops had gone “on the offensive” after South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages.
As a result, he said, Georgian forces now controlled “most of South Ossetia.”
He said the breakaway region’s districts of Znauri, Tsinagari, as well as the villages of Dmenisi, Gromi, and Khetagurovo, were “already liberated” by Georgian forces.
“A large part of Tskhinvali is now liberated and fighting is ongoing in the center of Tskhinvali,” he added.
He also said that Georgia had come under aerial attack from Russian warplanes on August 8, which was an obvious sign of “large-scale military aggression” against Georgia.
The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs said that three SU-24 Fencer attack aircraft had breeched Georgian airspace on August 8, and one of them had dropped two bombs close to a police station in Kareli, slightly injuring several people.
“Immediately stop the bombing of Georgian towns,” Saakashvili told Russia. “Georgia did not start this confrontation and Georgia will not give up its territories; Georgia will not say no to its freedom… We have already mobilized tens of thousands of reserve troops. Mobilization is ongoing.”
“Hundreds of thousands of Georgians should stand together and save Georgia,” he added.
Moscow is now threatening Georgia with military aggression. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking in Beijing, is said by BBC World Service (The World Today, 8am) to have promised direct action. gazeta.ru reports that the South Ossetia regime’s security council has requested Russian military aid “within the hour”. Russian air strikes have already taken place against targets on Georgian territory outside the conflict zone.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze has issued a statement in which he defends the use of “peace enforcement measures” to resolve the situation (via Civil Georgia):
“Government troops were forced to launch measures for the establishment of peace in the region after separatist forces responded to President Saakashvili’s peace initiatives by shelling Georgian villages,” PM Gurgenidze said.
“Government forces are now undertaking measures to secure the restoration and establishment of a guaranteed peaceful situation, wherein there will be no longer a threat to the population of that region.”
“These measures are ongoing now and will continue until we reach this goal,” he added.
PM Gurgenidze, however, also said that Tbilisi was willing to engage in dialogue at any time to resolve the conflict.
He said that there were casualties, both dead and wounded, but did not give details. He said that the Interior Ministry planned to provide hourly updates for the press.
PM Gurgenidze said that infiltration of “so-called volunteers” into South Ossetia from the Russian Federation via Roki Tunnel had been observed overnight on August 8.
“We are also undertaking measures to prevent further massive infiltration of those volunteers, because they are one of the major sources of destabilization,” he said.
He also called on the population to remain calm. “Today is a usual working day,” the PM said.
The prime minister said that the government had already allocated an initial GEL 50 million for humanitarian and infrastructure rehabilitation, which, he said, would be needed “as soon as peace is established.”
Heavy fighting “in and around Tskhinvali” was reported as PM Gurgenidze was speaking, as well as all night.
The South Ossetia side said there were casualties on its side, mainly among civilians, but no exact numbers were reported. Some sources said at least 15 people were killed in Tskhinvali, but others suggested more comprehensive information would reveal a higher figure.
Russian peacekeeping forces reported that “all type of heavy weaponry” was used by both sides during the overnight fighting. Georgian warplanes were also seen over the conflict zone at dawn. The Russian peacekeepers reported that five Georgian SU-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft attacked South Ossetian military positions in the village of Kverneti.
Itar-Tass news agency reported that Georgian warplanes also carried out strikes on South Ossetian positions in Java in the north of the region, which is outside the formal area of the conflict zone – a 15-kilometer radios around Tskhinvali.
“Heavy fighting in and around Tskhinvali is ongoing,” the South Ossetian Press and Information Committee reported. “The people of South Ossetia request the president and the leadership of the Russian Federation to help and to undertake measures to protect its citizens in South Ossetia.”