Philippines: time for peace over

19 08 2008
The military said 26 civilians and eight soldiers were killed in Monday's fighting

The military said 26 civilians and eight soldiers were killed in Monday

The Philippine military chief has vowed to hunt down separatists who attacked two towns in the south, saying the time to give peace a chance was now over.

At least 34 people, most of them civilians, were killed in the south of the Catholic-majority nation on Monday after hundreds of Muslim separatists attacked two towns, burning homes, raiding banks and forcing tens of thousands to flee, officials said.

“You all know we have bent as far backward [as possible] to give peace a chance,” General Alexander Yano said on Philippine radio on Tuesday.

“The patience of our soldiers in trying to uphold the primacy of the peace process is very commendable but at some point we really have to act decisively.

“We will pursue and take aggressive action against the perpetrators of the dastardly acts committed against innocent civilians.”

There were no immediate reports of fresh fighting on Tuesday in the Mindanao region but military forces were strengthened in anticipation of fresh attacks.

Philippine peace process hampered

Reinforcements

A senior army general said military reinforcements had been deployed to prevent a repeat of Monday’s carnage, when about 200-500 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters cut off a main highway and raided up to five coastal towns in Lanao del Norte province.

The military said 26 civilians and eight soldiers were killed in Monday’s fighting in Kolambugan and Kauswagan towns.

Dozens of civilians were used as human shields and some of them were shot dead by retreating fighters, according to the military.

Monday’s attack was the bloodiest since a territorial deal with the MILF stalled earlier this month and comes just days after government troops halted an offensive against MILF fighters in another part of Mindanao.

The MILF leadership has distanced itself from the latest attacks, saying that renegade commander Abdullah Macapaar, also known as Bravo, ordered them without the knowledge of the group’s leadership.

“We regret the loss of lives and property in Lanao del Norte, but we would to emphasise that the MILF leadership has not authorised these actions,” spokesman Eid Kabalu said, adding that the MILF remained committed to peace and that Macapaar would “face the consequence of his action”.

But General Yano countered that the MILF leaders had no control over their field commanders.

“If they can’t control them, the government will certainly control them and we will undertake our mandate to protect the people and the communities and we cannot renege on that constitutional mandate,” he said.

In Iligan, Lanao del Norte’s provincial capital and industrial centre of 300,000 people, the authorities imposed a 10pm-5am curfew and suspended schools due to bomb threats and the unstable security situation.

Last week, the military bombed MILF positions for four straight days, triggering an exodus of around 160,000 people, after accusations that the separatists had occupied Christian-owned farmlands.

Stalled peace plan

The MILF has been waging a 30-year guerrilla campaign for a separate Islamic state in the south of the largely-Christian Philippines – a conflict that has killed over 120,000 people.

The separatists signed a ceasefire with the government in 2003 to open the way for peace talks, and both sides said in July they had completed a draft agreement for recognition of MILF’s “ancestral domain” in the south.

However, the agreement on the size of a Muslim homeland and a future government’s powers, including rights over exploring and developing mineral reserves, oil and gas, was halted amid protests by local Catholic politicians in Mindanao.

The Supreme Court suspended the draft accord, raising new tensions, earlier this month and the situation on the ground has deteriorated rapidly since then.

Hawks on both sides have seized on the stalling of the peace moves to re-ignite fighting that has been mostly dormant since 2003.

Mohaqher Iqbal, the chief rebel negotiator, has said that if nothing comes out of the current peace process with the government, the separatists will return to war.





Lugo to end Paraguay corruption

16 08 2008

Lugo said the ceremony marked the end of a Lugo said the ceremony marked the end of a

Fernando Lugo has vowed to end political corruption in Paraguay after being sworn in as president of the South American nation.

Lugo, a former bishop, said on Friday in Asuncion, the country’s capital, he would break Paraguay’s “reputation for corruption” after he ended 61-years of rule by the conservative Colorado party.

“Today, Paraguay breaks with its reputation for corruption, breaks with the few feudal lords of the past,” said man known as the “bishop of the poor”.

Lugo, who takes over from Nicanor Duarte, the outgoing president, took the oath of office in a ceremony in the capital earlier on Friday.

The 57-year-old has pledged to transform Paraguay’s impoverished society, where almost half of the of the country’s six million people live below the poverty line.

“Today is the end of an exclusive Paraguay, a segregationist Paraguay, a notoriously corrupt Paraguay,” he said.

“Today begins the history of a Paraguay whose authorities will be implacable with thieves.”Paraguayan poor battle for land reform
‘People’s champion’

Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman in Asuncion said Lugo’s election victory was seen as a chance to create a new political and economic culture after decades of rule by the Colorado party.

Lugo has long-championed the rights of Paraguay’s landless peasants and indigenous populations.

One indigenous Indian who travelled hundreds of miles to attend the ceremony told the AP news agency he had high hopes for Lugo.

“I just want him to get rid of the corruption and the inequality so we have a chance at giving my children a future,” Marcelino Coronel said.

“In the Chaco [region], the government never did anything for us.”

The ceremony was also attended by several Latin American leaders, including Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, and Evo Morales, the Bolivian leader.

Corruption fight

Lugo won 40 per cent of the vote in a three-candidate presidential race in April this year.

A newcomer to politics, he was swept to power by a largely grassroots coalition of opposition parties, the Patriotic Alliance for Change, and has the respect of several Colorado party politicians who were disillusioned with Duarte.

The former bishop was given a blessing by Pope Benedict XVI to enter office and a waiver to return to layman’s status in order to become president.

On the eve of his inauguration, thousands of supporters, who attended his stadium rally, applauded Lugo when he said he would refuse his presidential salary of about $4,000 a month.

While Lugo has said he will govern for the poor, he has distanced himself from Chavez and his allies, sending a more pro-business message and saying he will reduce rather than increase state control of the economy.

However, the Colorado party, which also supported the 1954 to 1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, still dominates most government institutions in the small landlocked country, where corruption is entrenched and just one per cent of the population controls 77 per cent of the land.

One of Lugo’s first challenges as president will also be renegotiating hydro-power treaties with wealthy neighbouring nations Brazil and Argentina, in addition to finding a means of helping thousands of landless peasants.

The peasants, who have been seizing private property, have reportedly said they will begin a much larger wave of invasions on land owned by rich farmers as early as this weekend.





As Smoke Clears In Georgia, Humanitarian Concerns Come Into Focus

15 08 2008

A refugee camp in Alagir, North OssetiaA refugee camp in Alagir, North Ossetia

As Western diplomats focus on finalizing a fragile cease-fire between Russia and Georgia, humanitarian organizations are scrambling to help the estimated 118,000 civilians displaced by the conflict.

Humanitarian groups have been shipping medical supplies and food to Tbilisi.

But so far, little aid has reached civilians in the conflict zone, which remains largely off-limits despite repeated calls by humanitarian organizations for safe and unimpeded access.

Aid relief is badly needed even in Tbilisi itself, where hundreds of displaced Georgians continue to gather every day outside the mayor’s office to be placed in one of the shelters set up in the city.

Medea Tramagadze and her family fled their home in Mamisaantubani, a Georgian village in South Ossetia, which came under intense artillery shelling in the early days of the conflict.

Her children and grandchildren had already found shelter, but she says other family members are still homeless.

“We have been given shelter, at least one part of my family. The children have proper food, the place is clean — but it was very crowded, there were very few places there,” Tramagadze says.

Crowded Camps

With displaced civilians still flooding into Tbilisi, shelters are increasingly overcrowded, prompting humanitarian groups to hastily assemble tent camps close to the city.

Maia Kardava, who works for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Tbilisi, says the group is concerned about the well-being of those living in these makeshift dormitories, many of which have no water or sewage systems.

Kardava says displaced people are also in great need of psychological assistance:

“People who had to flee their homes come to our office. I have to say that our work is very difficult, and it’s very difficult too for these people, who have obviously been under stress,” Kardava says.

“Many of them come to us because they’ve lost contact with their loved ones — and that’s something we’re now working on, helping them restore family links. What might be coming soon — and it’s obvious there’s a need for that — is psycho-social assistance to the displaced population.”

Humanitarian groups are also active in Russia’s republic of North Ossetia, where thousands of South Ossetians have sought refuge from the fighting.

Roza Tsargasova fled Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, after cowering for days in a basement with her grandchild and pregnant daughter.

“We went down to the basement after the fighting started. We spent three days there, in the dark, without either water or bread. Among us was a 4-month-old baby, a pregnant woman, elderly people, children,” Tsargasova says.

“We sat there in anguish while heavy artillery was being fired, we didn’t even see the light of day. Then someone came from another building and told us that a [humanitarian] corridor had opened and that we should run for our lives.”

Roza and her family safely made it across the Russian border into North Ossetia, where they found shelter at a tourist pension in the town of Alagir. She says her house was destroyed in the fighting.

“We ran out and what we saw was terrible — all the houses were destroyed, schools and buildings were ablaze,” she says. “Now we are being sent here and there. But we’ll probably go back to our native city, even if the houses are in ruins. We’ll build a shack and live in it, and help our people.”

Innocent Victims Of War

Just outside Alagir is a women’s monastery where nuns are currently sheltering some 50 people. One of the nuns, Mother Nonna, says many of the people at the monastery are women, children, and the elderly.

“The first thing we did was to feed people at the monastery’s gates. This went on for the whole time. The sisters got almost no sleep. Now we are working hard on redistributing all the aid that is brought to the monastery,” Nonna says.

“At the beginning there were mostly women and children, but now there are very old people whom I don’t how to look in the eye — after living their lives, building their houses, at age 70 or 80 they have to leave for unfamiliar places.”

According to Russian officials, 12,000 South Ossetians have already returned to the province. Early Russian reports said as many as 30,000 Ossetians fled across the border, although some have disputed the figures.

Some rights organizations are also addressing claims that both Russian and Georgian forces deliberately targeted civilians during the fighting, which began on the night of August 7-8.

Tatyana Lokshina, the deputy head of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Moscow office, is one of the few rights campaigners who gained access to Tskhinvali this week. She said she saw signs Georgian soldiers had used indiscriminate use of force against local residents.

“Several of the city’s residential districts are severely damaged, government buildings suffered extensive damaged. We saw traces of strikes aimed at basements in which people were hiding and were then trapped for several days. We saw houses whose basement walls had been breached by armored personnel carriers,” Lokshina says.

“We saw undeniable signs that the Grad [missile] system, a nonprecision weapon, was used. There is no doubt whatsoever that the rights of Tskhinvali’s civilian population were severely violated.”

Casualty Numbers Unclear

According to the Russian government, 1,600 South Ossetians were killed in Georgia’s offensive to regain control of the region.

Lokshina, who spoke to staff at Tskhinvali’s central hospital, says the real figure is considerably lower.

“We were told that 273 injured people were brought to this hospital from Tskhinvali and its outskirts. Concerning the number of dead, the number cited was 44 South Ossetian residents,” Lokshina says.

“Doctors are positive that all the South Ossetians killed were brought to this hospital. They are convinced that the number of dead is not much higher; otherwise they would know about it.”

Lokshina, however, says the death toll could rise further since some bodies are still trapped in basements, while other victims could have been independently buried by their families.

No figures are available for Georgians killed in Tskhinvali, whose bodies have yet to be counted, or, in some instances, even retrieved from the streets.

HRW also says it has evidence that Russian aircraft dropped cluster bombs on Georgia, including the 50,000-strong city of Gori. Russia has denied the charge.

Trading Accusations

Reporters and human rights campaigners have also reported seeing Russian and South Ossetian fighters carrying out looting in Georgian villages.

Both sides of the conflict have traded accusations of atrocities in the conflict zone, including ethnic cleaning and attacks on the civilian population.

Yelena Tyutkova, an ethnic Russian who holds Georgian citizenship, fled her home in the western Georgian city of Zugdidi and is currently sheltering in a hostel in Sochi, in Russia, after receiving passage through Sukhumi, the capital of the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Tyutkova and her extended family of 14 were all born and raised in Georgia. But she says that didn’t prevent local Georgians from forcing her family out of the city. Trying to soothe her 5-month-old baby, Tyutkova says the Georgians were retaliating for Russia’s attacks on Georgia.

“It was very tough, they started threatening us and expelled our daughter from school. They threatened to either kill us or blow up the school. They smashed the windows of the school that’s in the Russian sector. They started dragging us out of our flats, our rooms,” Tyutkova says.

Tbilisi accuses Moscow of war crimes, because Russia launched a large-scale retaliatory strike against Georgia.

Russian officials, in turn, accuse Georgia of genocide and claim Georgian troops planted mines in civilian areas as they retreated.





Who Controls Pakistan’s Powerful ISI

14 08 2008

NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, U.S. General David McKiernan, said this week he is certain there is “a level of ISI complicity” in the militant areas of Pakistan and within organizations like the Taliban.

McKiernan’s remarks echo allegations made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Indian government, and Pentagon insiders who are frustrated about the rising cross-border militancy that is based in Pakistan.

But McKiernan said he is unable to speak about the level of leadership within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency that is involved with the Taliban and other militants.

Pakistan has refuted allegations that the ISI supports cross-border insurgent attacks into Afghanistan. Islamabad does acknowledge that elements within the ISI are sympathetic to the insurgency in Afghanistan. But it portrays such agents as “rogue” operators pursuing their own private agendas.

Barnett Rubin, director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, tells RFE/RL that he thinks the ISI is too disciplined for rogue agents to carry out such activities without getting caught.

“Whatever is happening, I don’t think it is attributable to rogue elements,” Rubin says. “In any intelligence service — especially for covert operations — you often try to maintain a level of deniability so that the top decision makers are not fully informed about what is going on.”

Level Of Deniability

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of the book “Taliban,” has maintained for years that the ISI has played a double game with Washington and the Taliban.

On the one hand, Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. At the same time, the ISI is alleged to covertly support cross-border militant attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, India, and the Indian-administered parts of Kashmir.

In his latest book, “Descent Into Chaos,” Rashid maintains that the ISI has set up private organizations in order to distance the relationship between its military leadership and extremist fighters. He says the private organizations are staffed by retired ISI officers and funded through the budget of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps.

The scenario described by Rashid highlights the lack of oversight that the civilian government in Islamabad has over the ISI.

“There are still huge differences between the military and the politicians as to how to combat terrorism — what to do about it. The military is really controlling the policy. The civilians don’t have much of a say,” Rashid says.

“This is one of the reasons why Pakistan has not been able to fight the war on terror decisively and why there are so many differences with the Americans on this. Not everyone is reading from the same page.”

Rubin says that although the ISI is nominally controlled by the Pakistani prime minister, the reality is that it is controlled by Pakistan’s armed forces.

“Formally, the [director-general] of the ISI reports to the prime minister. The [director-general] of the ISI, however, is a three-star general appointed by the chief of army staff, who reports to the president. The eight departments of the ISI are headed by eight two-star generals who are chosen by the [director-general of the] ISI. And the budget comes out of the defense and intelligence budget, which is not subject to civilian review in Pakistan,” Rubin says.

“So, while formally [the ISI] reports to the prime minister, the control is effectively lodged with the military,” he adds. “Now how that actually works — that is, who finally makes decisions — I don’t know.”

Nasim Zehra, a prominent Pakistani journalist and security analyst, as well as a research fellow for Harvard University’s Asia Center, points out that the “ISI is heavily manned by people from the armed forces. So it is not an organization which is a purely civilian organization.

“It would be correct to say that it has not been controlled, really, by the prime minister the way it should be. Technically and constitutionally, it is under the control of the prime minister. But operationally speaking, and substantively speaking, the prime ministers have not really even strengthened the defense cabinet committees,” Zehra adds. “As the ISI stands today, it pretty much doesn’t function under these kind of parliament-related civilian controls.”

Continuing The Jihad

Indeed, the top military generals in charge of Pakistan’s army and the ISI were appointed by President Pervez Musharraf after he seized power in 1999 in a bloodless coup.

Musharraf — who also held the country’s top military post until he resigned late last year as chief of the army staff — now faces the prospect of impeachment by the governing coalition in Pakistan. Musharraf is accused of misconduct and violating the constitution.

Rashid says Pakistan’s army never understood that after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the international community would have no tolerance for Islamic extremism and that the ISI’s backing of militant groups would have to cease, not just in Afghanistan, but also in Kashmir.

Zehra says the ISI grew by leaps and bounds when an “international jihad” against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was being bankrolled through Pakistan with funds from the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. She says that is when the ISI grew in capacity, skill, and resources as an agency capable of carrying out covert operations externally.

“Past that period, the ISI strategy that has flowered — the training that was given — was really essentially…’religionized militancy’ and ‘Islamicized militancy,’” Zehra says.

“And the tools — the assets — that were developed by the intelligence agency were subsequently used to reach [the goals of] Pakistan’s own security interests and [for] battling Pakistan’s own security threats as perceived by intelligence agencies in Pakistan.”

Question Of Politics

But Zehra says it is the ISI’s political machinations within Pakistan, rather than its external activities, that have damaged its reputation among Pakistanis.

“This country has been under military rule quite a lot. When it has been under military rule, one section of the ISI has been used by military rulers to engineer the political situation in the country,” Zehra says. “And for that it has earned a very bad reputation.”

As a result, Zehra says the issue of civilian oversight for the ISI is now very important to Pakistan’s governing coalition.

“Internally, obviously, there has always been a big question that we need to have an organization which reports to the executive — and the reporting lines are stringent and there is oversight. That’s the concern within the country,” Zehra says.

“There has been an effort in the past under General Musharraf — the question of growing a nexus between the executive authority and the ISI so that there is unity of command. General Musharraf has been very keen that the intelligence agency would come completely under his control,” Zehra adds. “Now the question, of course, is: With an elected government, how do you arrange this control of the ISI?”

Zehra concludes that regardless of what happens with the coalition’s efforts to impeach Musharraf, officials in Islamabad need to ensure rigorous lines of authority for the ISI in the future.

She says one possible avenue is having the defense cabinet committee — as well as parliamentary committees — oversee the ISI. But Zehra adds that the path of institutional accession — the supremacy of the parliament as laid out in the constitution — means that the parliament also needs to get serious on this issue. An issue that is not only important to Pakistanis — but also very important to Pakistan’s neighbors and the country’s allies in the war against terrorism.





Georgian Leader’s Future Unclear

13 08 2008

Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets in Tbilisi on August 12 to underline their desire to put aside politics and show unity in the face of Moscow’s incursion into their country.

The mass rally gave popular expression to the message leaders across Georgia’s political spectrum have been sending since fighting erupted on August 7.

That is, in the face of Russian troops, there is no question of a crisis of government in Tbilisi. The country stands united behind its president.

Saakashvili appeared buoyed by that solidarity as he appeared before the crowd of tens of thousands waving Georgian flags and holding icons — the twin symbols of Georgia’s nationhood. And he welcomed the support of four presidents and one prime minister from former communist states who flew in to stand beside him.

“Today, when the occupier is on our soil, they think that Tbilisi will be broken, subdued, and will surrender to their tanks, as it had happened several times in the past in other European countries,” Saakashvili said. “It will not happen now. And you are standing here with us and supporting us.”

Saakashvili To Blame?

But even as the Georgian nation rallies behind its president, Saakashvili now finds himself in a highly vulnerable position.

Doubts — quietly, but increasingly insistent — are beginning to be raised both in Georgia and the West over whether he rashly allowed Moscow to goad him into a war with a vastly superior foe.

Behind the doubts is Georgians’ expressed disappointment with the West for what they see as only verbal support in a hot war. Many ordinary Georgians fully expected Western powers to help their forces roll back the Russian tanks that pushed far beyond the separatist areas and into Georgia’s heartland.

“I also understand the disappointment that many of our citizens feel at the lack of tangible support from the West. That includes military support — I know that many Georgians expected the West would intervene,” Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s ambassador to the UN, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.

“I think we should take this into consideration. From now on, any policy decision we make must be carefully thought through, with a cool head. Only then will we be able to really achieve the Georgian government’s goals,” he added. “We should never raise the expectations of the Georgian people — or our own expectations — too high, by thinking that the West is going to intervene militarily to resolve this conflict.”

Alasania’s caution about excessive expectations suggests where public discussion of Saakashvili’s leadership might go after the immediate crisis eases. That is, did Saakashvili exaggerate the West’s support for his actions? Or, to put it another way, if he did not have firm Western pledges to support him militarily, did he react wisely to Russia’s provocations?

Tornike Sharashenidze, a political analyst in Tbilisi, describes the Georgian government’s decision to send troops into South Ossetia to suppress cross-border artillery fire as a mistake.

“I don’t have a particularly good opinion about some high-ranking individuals in the government, and I doubt they really had envisaged things that were to come. It seems like Saakashvili, at that moment, was under others’ influence, unfortunately,” Sharashenidze says.

“We, in fact, responded to [South Ossetia leader Eduard) Kokoity’s provocation. Whether Kokoity was driven by stupidity or deviousness, the fact remains that they attacked our positions — and we responded,” Sharashenidze adds. “We were not able to contain ourselves, and began the attack on Tskhinvali — which was a mistake of course.”

Western Encouragement?

The debate is likely to focus upon whether the mistake was willful or misinformed. That is, whether Saakashvili knew he did not have Western military support but went ahead anyway, or whether he believed he had it but was as disappointed as his countrymen.

It’s still too early to fully reconstruct what Saakashvili did or did not know. But early pieces to the puzzle are already providing fuel for a heated discussion.

“The New York Times” reported on August 13 that Washington warned Saakashvili early last month not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win.

The paper quoted a senior administration official as saying U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Saakashvili at a dinner in Tbilisi on July 9 that “he had to put a non-use-of-force pledge on the table” in negotiations over the separatist enclaves.

“The New York Times” added that “right up until the hours before Georgia launched its attack late last week in South Ossetia, Washington’s top envoy for the region, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried and other administration officials were warning the Georgians not to allow the conflict to escalate.”

The eventual debate in Georgia over Saakashvili’s leadership is likely to be mirrored by a debate in the West over whether it took too many steps to embolden him and whether he is the West’s best choice for a partner. Over the years, the United States has sent advisers to strengthen Georgia’s military, sent troops to participate in joint military exercises, and championed Georgia’s eventual membership in NATO.

Western policymakers now are asking themselves whether they went too slow, or too fast in this effort to nourish and protect Georgia’s fledgling democracy against a Russia intent on reasserting its dominance in the Caucasus.

Would Saakashvili have been more cautious if the West had moved slower? Did Saakashvili overestimate the resources the West was handing him? Or should the West have moved faster to bring Georgia into NATO precisely to avoid Russia’s mauling of its protege?

All the questions tie together and promise a bruising political battle for Saakashvili as soon as the current crisis subsides.





Russian army heading for Tbilisi

13 08 2008
Wednesday, 13 August 2008 17:09
mapRussian military vehicles have been heading towards the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Al Jazeera has confirmed.

Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher tailed a convoy of Russian armoured vehicles  on the road from the town of Gori, less than 60km from Tbilisi on Wednesday.

“Right in front me, no more than 100 metres away is an armoured personnel carrier with three Russian soldiers on top … behind that there is a long convoy of Russian military vehicles,” Fisher reported.

“They’re not moving at a fast speed, but they are moving towards Tbilisi.

“It is only 60km from Gori to Tbilisi, but this doesn’t look like an invasion force.”

He later said the convoy had come to a halt, split in two and taken up artillery positions. A convoy of Georgian special forces was alsoreported to be heading for the area he said.

“Act of provocation”

“The fact Russian forces have moved so far into Georgian territory will be seen as an act of provocation,” Fisher said.

Georgian and Russian officials have traded accusations that troops from each side have been acting against the spirit of a peace plan agreed the previous day,

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Tbilisi said: “This seems to have overstepped the bounds of the Russian side of this ceasefire, they pledged not to move from their positions and stop firing.”

He said that the move could be to secure the main Gori-Tbilisi highway.

“What this adds up to however … while we may have have a ceasefire on the ground, this is an extraordinary show of Russian force.”

The events came a day after Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president, hailed an EU-mediated ceasefire agreement reached in Moscow between Georgia and Russia.

Aljazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Moscow, said: “These are disturbing developments given all the work that was done by the EU yesterday.

He said the Russians had agreed with the Georgians on Tuesday to withdraw to the positions they were in before the outbreak of the conflict.

But he added: “We have heard from our colleagues on the ground that this isn’t the case.”

Earlier the secretary of Georgia’s security council told local television that 50 Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers were in Gori, about 30km from the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

‘Occupying forces’

“Russian occupying forces were continuing movements across Georgia despite the ceasefire,” Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, said early on Wednesday as he stood alongside the leaders of other former Soviet states.

But General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia’s deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, said it was Georgian forces that were violating the ceasefire.

“Georgian forces have begun their pullback towards Tbilisi but no active withdrawal has yet been observed,” he said.

“We are still obliged to fulfil our mission by taking out firing positions, snipers and so on.”

Earlier Al Jazeera’s Fisher reported that Russian forces in tanks and armoured personnel carriers had essentially “taken over the town of Gori”.

“I myself saw three personnel carriers on the edge of the town … but there was no doubt they were moving towards Gori,” he said.

However, Russia’s military on Wednesday repeatedly denied that any troops were inside Gori.

“Neither Russian peacekeepers nor any units subordinate to them are present in Gori,” the Interfaxagency quoted a Russian military spokesman as saying.

Russian demand

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that a commitment in the peace plan drafted by the French under which Georgian forces would withdraw to “permanent positions” meant they should return to barracks.

“Upon the withdrawal of Georgian troops to their barracks, Russian troops will return to the territory of the Russian Federation,” Lavrov said.

“Our peacekeepers will remain in South Ossetia,” he said, referring to peacekeeping units separate from the regular army that have been deployed in the Georgian province for 15 years.

Saakashvili said on Wednesday that Russia was responsible for “Balkan-type and World War II-type ethnic cleansing and purification campaigns” during the conflict.

“We are getting reports of large-scale violation of human rights of the worst of the case,” he said.

“The town of Tskhinvali was turned into Grozny Two by Russian carpet bombardment and I really want people to go in and check and verify what kind of bombs are these.

“I have been hearing accusation that this was Georgian bombing and this is not true.”





Russian forces sink Georgian ships

13 08 2008

Russian forces have sunk several vessels in Georgia’s military port of Poti, Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel Hamid has reported from the scene.

The attack on Wednesday follows a day of dramatic developments in the Russia-Georgia conflict amid what appears to be an escalation of military action on the ground.

Abdel Hamid said: “Russia is clearly on the offensive.

“We have seen more and more Russian troops coming into the area all day – a continuous build up of forces including columns of tanks and truck all along the roads here.

“They came into this area and destroyed six Georgian vessels.

“From what we understand, they came with the specific task of destroying all the military facilities of the Georgians,” she said.

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull said: “Poti is one of the most important ports in the Black Sea.

“The offensive means that the ceasefire is dead – back to ground zero.”

Convoy tailed

Russian military vehicles earlier headed towards the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher reported.

Fisher tailed a convoy of Russian armoured vehicles  on the road from the town of Gori, less than 60km from Tbilisi.

“Right in front me, no more than 100 metres away is an armoured personnel carrier with three Russian soldiers on top … behind that there is a long convoy of Russian military vehicles,” Fisher reported.

“They’re not moving at a fast speed, but they are moving towards Tbilisi.

“It is only 60km from Gori to Tbilisi, but this doesn’t look like an invasion force.”

He later said the convoy had come to a halt before turning round and heading back to Gori.

“Act of provocation”

“The fact Russian forces have moved so far into Georgian territory will be seen as an act of provocation,” Fisher said.

Georgian and Russian officials have traded accusations that troops from each side have been acting against the spirit of a peace plan agreed the previous day,

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Tbilisi said: “This seems to have overstepped the bounds of the Russian side of this ceasefire, they pledged not to move from their positions and stop firing.”

He said that the move could be to secure the main Gori-Tbilisi highway.

“What this adds up to however … while we may have have a ceasefire on the ground, this is an extraordinary show of Russian force.”

The events came a day after Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president, hailed an EU-mediated ceasefire agreement reached in Moscow between Georgia and Russia.

Aljazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Moscow, said: “These are disturbing developments given all the work that was done by the EU yesterday.

He said the Russians had agreed with the Georgians on Tuesday to withdraw to the positions they were in before the outbreak of the conflict.

But he added: “We have heard from our colleagues on the ground that this isn’t the case.”

Earlier the secretary of Georgia’s security council told local television that 50 Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers were in Gori, about 30km from the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

‘Occupying forces’

“Russian occupying forces were continuing movements across Georgia despite the ceasefire,” Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, said early on Wednesday as he stood alongside the leaders of other former Soviet states.

But General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia’s deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, said it was Georgian forces that were violating the ceasefire.

“Georgian forces have begun their pullback towards Tbilisi but no active withdrawal has yet been observed,” he said.

“We are still obliged to fulfil our mission by taking out firing positions, snipers and so on.”

Earlier Al Jazeera’s Fisher reported that Russian forces in tanks and armoured personnel carriers had essentially “taken over the town of Gori”.

“I myself saw three personnel carriers on the edge of the town … but there was no doubt they were moving towards Gori,” he said.

However, Russia’s military on Wednesday repeatedly denied that any troops were inside Gori.

“Neither Russian peacekeepers nor any units subordinate to them are present in Gori,” the Interfaxagency quoted a Russian military spokesman as saying.

Russian demand

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that a commitment in the peace plan drafted by the French under which Georgian forces would withdraw to “permanent positions” meant they should return to barracks.

“Upon the withdrawal of Georgian troops to their barracks, Russian troops will return to the territory of the Russian Federation,” Lavrov said.

“Our peacekeepers will remain in South Ossetia,” he said, referring to peacekeeping units separate from the regular army that have been deployed in the Georgian province for 15 years.

Saakashvili said on Wednesday that Russia was responsible for “Balkan-type and World War II-type ethnic cleansing and purification campaigns” during the conflict.

“We are getting reports of large-scale violation of human rights of the worst of the case,” he said.

“The town of Tskhinvali was turned into Grozny Two by Russian carpet bombardment and I really want people to go in and check and verify what kind of bombs are these.

“I have been hearing accusation that this was Georgian bombing and this is not true.”








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