Georgia seeks Western help as Russia ends military assault


Moscow : The political players in the recently halted Ossetia war Wednesday were scrambling for tactical advantages in ongoing ceasefire talks.

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The de facto ceasefire held over its first night, with no violations reported by either side.

Fighting in the six-day conflict ended shortly after midday Tuesday. Aside from Georgian reports of a pair of Russian airstrikes after that time, combat appeared halted throughout the region.

In Washington, President George W. Bush’s administration was contemplating ways to punish Russia for the military assault on the pro-Western Georgian government led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, and was focusing on ways to get humanitarian aid to the Georgian population.

“The Russians need to stop their military operations, as they have apparently said that they will, but those military operations really do now need to stop, because calm needs to be restored,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the White House.

US retaliation measures will include cancellation of a US-Russia joint naval exercise, the Bush’s boycott of a NATO meeting with Russia, and longer-term US diplomacy aimed at reducing contact between Russia and the G7 nation group, US media reported.

The Georgian government formally requested NATO assistance shortly before the ceasefire came into effect, although the Caucasus nation is not a member of the alliance.

NATO held an emergency meeting Tuesday at its Brussels headquarters, where Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance will not back off its eventual plans to invite Georgia into the organization.

“That situation has not changed,” he said.

The Kremlin strongly opposes membership for Georgia and Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, and has increasingly expressed dismay over NATO’s continued eastward expansion.

Some analysts and US politicians allege that Russia launched the attack to intimidate its neighbours in an attempt to reassert its sphere of influence.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as the EU’s representative the key mediator between Russia and Georgia in the ceasefire talks, was in Tbilisi on Wednesday, along with the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Georgian media reported Wednesday that the presence of the “foreign presidents” would lead to the eventual installation of an international peacekeeping force in the Ossetia region – long a political goal of the Saakashvili administration.

The streets of Tbilisi were practically back to normal Wednesday, with restaurants open and cafes busy, and a government-organized pro-Saakashvili demonstration jamming the Georgian capital’s central Shota Rustaveli Street.

The atmosphere in the city was generally more festive than defiant, with tens of thousands of Tbilisi residents taking the night air for the first time since the onset of war Thursday.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Saakashvili is not a reliable partner for negotiating peace and called on the US-educated president to resign.

“It would be better if he went,” Lavrov told reporters.

Lavrov said that Russia had no intention of ousting Saakashvili.

Officers at Russia’s 58th Army, the formation responsible for ejecting Georgia’s military from South Ossetia, likewise said that Moscow had no long-term plans to occupy the region.

Civilian officials within South Ossetia and particularly its unofficial capital Tskhinvali were beginning to repair massive damage caused by intense artillery barrages.

Regional authorities were focusing on identifying and burying corpses, and supplying civilian survivors food and water, said Anatoliy Barankevich, South Ossetia’s security council chief, according to an Interfax report.

A bread factory in the region already was functional and loaf production had already begun, and martial law was in effect, he said.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the weekend promised close to a half billion dollars of Kremlin reconstruction money for the South Ossetia reconstruction effort.

The Russian military said 16 of its soldiers died in the fighting and 100 others were wounded. Georgia reported 175 dead soldiers and 500 wounded. Russian authorities said they captured an unspecified number of Georgian troops. Reports of civilian casualties ranged from 200 to 2,000 dead.

The United Nations, European Union and United States were mobilizing to deliver humanitarian assistance to refugees. About 25,000 people fled from South Ossetia into Russia, while another 2,000 went to Armenia.