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Georgian Forces Launch South Ossetia Offensive


American officials are scrambling to try to prevent war between Russia and neighboring Georgia. We've got more on this story now. Russian troops are in a part of Georgia that is trying for its own independence. It's called South Ossetia. Georgia says Russia is bombing Georgian military bases, and dozens of people are reportedly already dead in the conflict.


Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, speaking on CNN today, appealed to the West to stop what he called Russian aggression.

(Soundbite of speech)

President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): We are freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack. And we've always been warned. If you got too close to America, if you continue up - down to this path, you will have problems. But what's happening now is beyond what I could have imagined. And if they get away with this in Georgia, the world will be in trouble.

BRAND: The State Department is sending an envoy to the region to help mediate a ceasefire. Reporter Lawrence Sheets is in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He's here now. And Lawrence, let's start with this first, basic question. And I know this is complicated, but if you could just boil it down for us, what is this conflict about?

LAWRENCE SHEETS: Well, this started as a separatist conference back in the early 1990s, when the 25,000 or 35,000 or so ethnic Ossetians living in South Ossetia declared independence. They did not want to be part of Georgia, in which they saw minority rights at risk. The Ossetians won that war with quite a lot of help from volunteers from Russia's North Caucasus region. The Georgians were repelled, and for the next 10 years, South Ossetia was simply forgotten by the Georgian political establishment. What's happened in the last few years is that Georgia has made moves to try and reassert control some way over South Ossetia, try to find a compromise, a political compromise, offer the Ossetians all sorts of autonomy.

But they've also seen Russia getting increasingly involved. Russia has given passports to the entire South Ossetian population. The Russian - Russian officials run many of the separatist institutions. The Russian flag flies over South Ossetia these days.

And over the last year, we've had many, many minor clashes between the Ossetians and Georgian troops, and just over the last two days, some very serious fighting in which ethnic Georgian villages were attacked. Russia has always said that it would fight on the Ossetians side, if Georgia made any moves to reassert its control. And yesterday Russia - Georgia over the last 24 hours, took control of the separatist capital of Tskhinvali. So, what we have now are two divisions of the Russian army which have marched across the international frontier and right into Georgia, and they are staring down Georgian troops who are also in that city.

BRAND: So, why is Russia so heavily involved in this?

SHEETS: There are many reasons. Ossetians have more of an affinity for Russia than for Georgia. At times they talked about joining Russia. But this is also seen as a geopolitical game. Georgia wants to become a member of NATO. Georgia ousted Russian military bases from its territory. This comes after Russia's position on Kosovo was ignored. And after that, Russia began even - stepping up its relations even more with the separatist parts of Georgia. Many people see this as Russia punishing Georgia for its aspirations to be pro-Western and to be part of the NATO alliance, which would bring the NATO alliance right to Russia's southern border, which it regards it as its backyard. So, maybe people - people see this as a punitive position on the side of Russia.

BRAND: So, this is really now not just a separatist as rebellion. It's really a conflict between two states.

SHEETS: As a matter of fact, both leaders, President - Prime Minister Putin and President Saakashvili today called it a war. President Saakashvili - I'll paraphrase him - said that they were - that Georgia was at war with Russia. And certainly this has gone way beyond the small, separatist conflict. This is a direct military conflict now between Russia - 145 million people - and Georgia, which has about four and a half million people.

BRAND: OK. Lawrence Sheets, reporting from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Thank you very much.

SHEETS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).
Lawrence Sheets
Lawrence Scott Sheets concentrates on covering the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union from his base in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. From 2001 to 2005, Sheets was NPR’s Moscow Bureau Chief, and covered the countries of former USSR, including Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia. Among major stories Sheets has covered for NPR have been the tragic siege of a school by a pro-Chechen separatist terror group in 2004 in which 330 mostly children were killed, the 6-week long "Orange Revolution" that brought down Ukraine’s old government in 2004, and the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003. Sheets has also reported for NPR from Iran and Afghanistan. He covered the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan during 2001 and 2002, including the bloody Taliban uprising at a fortress in Mazar e Sharif in which hundreds of people died.Sheets’ reports can be heard on NPR's , All Things Considered, Day to Day, and Weekend Edition.