Armed clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces have resumed after a 14-year lull. On August 13, overnight gunfire began around 3:00 a.m. and left three Georgian civilians wounded.
Three Georgian soldiers were killed and several others injured as a result of shelling in South Ossetia on August 11-12. South Ossetian forces reported about 30 casualties and severe damage to several Ossetian villages. According to still-unconfirmed reports by Georgian sources, at least 10 South Ossetian fighters, including mercenaries from Russia, died in the skirmish.
The hostilities forced the Georgian government to evacuate 200 children from ethnic-Georgian villages in the conflict zone. The adults refused to leave their homes and pledged to stay and defend the villages at any cost.
The Georgians claim that the main goal of the Ossetian attacks on August 11-12 was to capture the strategic village Tamarasheni, the main Georgian outpost in the conflict zone, and cut off the road connecting the Georgian villages in order to block Georgian troop movements. About 1,500 Ossetian fighters, including Russian mercenaries, and 10 armored vehicles participated in the attack, the sources say.
Ibragim Gassiev, the acting defense minister of South Ossetia, told Russian media sources that units from the Georgian tank regiment deployed in Gori are heading toward “the borders of the South Ossetian Republic.” The Russian media reports that South Ossetian strongholds have been reinforced by anti-tank facilities.
Over the past twenty-four hours, the Georgian government has scrambled to develop a strategy for this rapidly unfolding situation. After emergency meetings with members of the government and National Security Council on August 12, President Mikheil Saakashvili announced three government priorities in settling the tense situation.
“The first task envisages ensuring the safety of the peaceful population. We will do our utmost to protect our population in the South Ossetian conflict area, ” Saakashvili said. The second task is to prevent the resumption of smuggling in the breakaway region, which would undermine the economy of Georgia. Task three is to avoid Georgia’s involvement in armed clashes. “We do not need this conflict; we intend to reintegrate the country peacefully,” the President added. “All these tasks are decisive at the moment,” he continued. “We need to coordinate efforts to avoid further provocations and to settle the existing problems through peaceful means,” Saakashvili advised. He underlined that Georgia would not be drawn into combat by any violent scenario devised by external forces.
At a briefing on August 12 and later in a televised interview, Nino Burjanadze, chairwoman of the Georgian Parliament, called on the Georgian population to remain calm and not succumb to panic. “The Georgian government is doing its best to replace the current hostilities with political dialogue. However, nobody should interpret our aspiration for peace as a sign of its weakness,” she said.
At a special news conference on August 12 Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania reported that the Georgian authorities, “Urge immediate talks with the South Ossetian separatists, as well as with top Russian officials, since Russia is actively involved in the recent developments in the conflict area. We also demand the complete demilitarization of the conflict area; that foresees the withdrawal of all extra troops from the South Ossetian conflict zone that are not part of the designated peacekeeping force there,” he said.
Zhvania labeled Russia as a party to the conflict when he said that the previous night’s events had revealed to everyone who is blame for the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia and who actually backs the separatists. He called on international organizations to actively participate in conflict resolution efforts and to immediately arrange a top-level meeting that would include representatives from the Georgian, South Ossetian, and Russian sides.
The Ossetian side has also expressed willingness for dialogue. Dressed in a military uniform and surrounded by members of his military forces, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti used an interview with Russian television companies to declare that the Ossetian side is ready to resume talks with Tbilisi. “We have to sit at the negotiating table,” he said.
That same day, Zhvania and State Minister for Conflict Settlements Giorgi Khaindrava went to the conflict zone. While Zhvania visited the Georgian villages that had come under fire, Khaindrava spoke with South Ossetian officials in Tskhinvali.
“The negotiations are underway in a sound manner. We know who is behind this conflict. We reiterated our position that we are categorically against hostilities. We have already approached the line, across which there is a bloody scenario,” Khaindrava said in an interview with “Mze” (Sun) television late on August 12. Zhvania and Kokoiti might meet today [August 13], depending on the outcome of a meeting of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) in Tskhinvali. Lev Mironov, Russian Ambassador-at-Large, arrived in Tbilisi on Thursday to mediate the talks, and reportedly Alexander Dzasokhov, President of North Ossetia, will also attend. The JCC should also provide additional security measures for Georgian villages and is expected to arrange for the withdrawal of extra military groups from the region. Khaindrava said that the mixed Georgian-Ossetian-Russian peacekeeping troops would be an additional guarantee that gunfire would not resume. Khaindrava said that his visit to Tskhinvali and Zhvania’s presence in the local villages are additional evidence of Georgia’s peaceful intentions.
Meanwhile, the Georgian press is speculating about conflicting opinions inside the government over how to cope with the latest developments. The resumption of hostilities has reportedly divided the government into hawks and doves. While Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili has insisted on tough measures, Zhvania, Khaindrava, and Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze adhere to a peaceful agenda. Political analyst Paata Zakareishvili branded Okruashvili a “warlord” akin to those that dominated in Georgia in early 1990s.
The press also has paid attention to Baramidze’s recent visit to Moscow, where he called for withdrawal of all military groups that had entered the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone illegally. He then explained that Georgia would withdraw its police and interior troops, indirectly admitting to the unsanctioned presence of these units in the conflict zone. Baramidze said that only peacekeeping troops should secure peace and order in the region. The press also criticized Baramidze for his silence about the recent violation of Georgian airspace in South Ossetia by Russian warplanes shortly before the outbreak of hostilities.
At the same time, Parliamentary Chair Burjanadze sharply criticized the Russian peacekeepers, accusing them of plotting with the Ossetian separatists. She called for either the withdrawal of the peacekeepers or an internationalization of their staff. Turkish Prime Minister Ejef Erdogan, who was visiting Georgia on August 11-12, unexpectedly stated that Turkey is ready to serve as mediator and even to contribute peacekeepers in South Ossetia.
Local media continue to speculate about the role of the Western community, especially the United States, in resolving the conflict. Mtavari gazeti wrote that the worsening relations between Russia and Georgia present a conundrum to Washington. While the United States tries to prevent Tbilisi from adopting a military solution to the South Ossetian problem, Russia seems intent on luring Georgia in a prolonged armed conflict so that it can then step in as a “peacemaker.” (Resonance, Mtavari gazeti, TV-Mze, TV -Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi. Interfax, NTV.ru, Interpress, Civil Georgia, NewsInfo, RIA-Novosti, August 12-13).