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Fighting Rages In South Ossetia

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

It's a conflict over a tiny region, but it could have big international repercussions. Last night, the Republic of Georgia tried to regain control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia. By the end of the day, Russian tanks had come to the aid of the separatist rebels, and Russia and Georgia were on the brink of an all-out war. Georgia is an ally of the U.S. It's also pulling some of its troops out of Iraq to help defend its territory. Latest reports say there is fierce fighting between the Russian and Georgian forces. Here's NPR's Moscow correspondent, Gregory Feifer.

GREGORY FEIFER: Georgian artillery firing last night on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, just hours after the government and pro-Moscow separatists had agreed to a cease-fire. Georgian fighter jets flew in support of the Georgian offensive. By Friday afternoon, Tbilisi said its troops had taken control of the separatists' stronghold.

The South Ossetians say more than 1,000 people have been killed, although there's no confirmation of that. Tbilisi says it's restoring constitutional order in the Moscow-backed region, which has ruled itself since a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): (Foreign Language Spoken)

FEIFER: Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili appeared on national television and ordered mobilization of reservists. Later, the Georgians said they were withdrawing 1,000 troops from Iraq to help defend their country. Saakashvili said he was forced to act after Russian armored vehicles crossed into Georgian territory. He told the BBC Russia wants to topple Georgian democracy.

President SAAKASHVILI: We are no longer in 1979. It's no longer Afghanistan. It's no longer Czechoslovakia of 1968. You cannot bring in tanks like to Budapest in 1956.

FEIFER: Georgia's actions have infuriated the Russian leadership. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - in Beijing for the Olympics - condemned what he called Tbilisi's act of aggression.

Prime Minister VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Russian Spoken)

FEIFER: They've started a military operation using all kinds of heavy artillery and tanks, he said. This is a very sad and worrying development to which, of course, we'll have to respond.

By early afternoon, convoys of Russian tanks and personnel carriers were pouring into South Ossetia. Russia has hundreds of peace-keeping troops already there, and says more than 10 of its peace-keepers were killed in fierce fighting with the Georgians. Georgia claims 30 of its soldiers were killed by Russian artillery in Tskhinvali and that Russian jets bombed airbases deep inside Georgia. The Georgians say they shot down several Russian planes, something Moscow denies.

Russia and Georgia have teetered on the edge of armed conflict for years. Tbilisi says Moscow has long supported the rebels in South Ossetia and wants to annex the region. Moscow has given passports to more than 90 percent of people in South Ossetia. And today, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would punish anyone who attacked them.

President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Russian Spoken)

FEIFER: As the Russian president, he said, I am bound to protect the lives and honor of Russian citizens, wherever they may be.

A large part of Russia's conflict with Georgia is Tbilisi's strong alliance with Washington and drive to join NATO. Military analyst Aleksandr Golts says if outright war breaks out, Russia would win militarily but at a political cost.

Mr. ALEKSANDR GOLTS (Military Analyst): If Russia will interfere now, our country will be aggressor in eyes of all international community, and Saakashvili will won in this situation.

FEIFER: Western diplomats are scrambling to prevent the hostilities from turning into a major conflict that could engulf the entire Caucasus region. The United States, which has strategic interest in Georgia, says it supports Georgia's territorial integrity. NATO and the European Union have called for an immediate cease-fire. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.