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Russia Halts Attack, Sets Conditions For Georgia


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Another day of bloodshed in Georgia amid reports that the Russians may be close to agreeing to stop the fighting. More on that in a moment. First, let's get a picture of what the situation is on the ground and as both sides issue claims and counterclaims that's hard to get a read on what's really happening.

As of this morning, it seems that Russian forces have moved deep into Georgia, and Russian jets have been in action again. They bombed the town of Gori, which is about 60 miles from Georgia's capital. NPR's Ivan Watson was in Gori yesterday when the roads were flooded with army trucks and other vehicles fleeing the city.

IVAN WATSON: Many of these are civilian vehicles with soldiers hanging onto them, hanging onto the sides, soldiers piled up into the back of pickup trucks. I've never anything like this. It appears to be a very haphazard retreat from the strategic town of Gori after just a few days of fighting with the Russian army.

The faces of these Georgian soldiers are very dejected. Some of them are crossing themselves as they are in full flight from the town that they were supposed to be defending.

MONTAGNE: Ivan is on the road between Gori and the capital T'bilisi, and joins us to talk about this now. Ivan, did the Russians take over the city as those Georgian soldiers that you described leaving had feared?

WATSON: No. I've spoken with residents, some of the few who remained in Gori, and they said that the Russian soldiers had not entered the city overnight or in fact even in the morning, and in fact that it was rather quiet, though they slept in basements to be safe.

That all changed this morning. Residents of Gori told me that air strikes and some kind of artillery strikes began around town this morning. We're getting reports from Georgian TV that one foreign journalist was killed in the city center by some kind of an explosion and several more wounded and that there has been some fierce fighting around the town.

The highway that I'm standing on that links the capital to Gori just 50 miles west, you can hear there's traffic moving back and forth, civilian traffic. But what's striking, Renee, is there is no military presence, no police presence at all.

MONTAGNE: Well, would you judge from what you know that T'bilisi, the capital, is under threat?

WATSON: We've gotten reports of explosions in T'bilisi today. Still trying to confirm what exactly happened. I can say this, Renee, there doesn't seem to be any protection at all for the Georgian capital right now. There is no military presence on the road that is the effective gateway to the Georgian capital. The Georgian army, which was in force in the thousands with artillery and tanks and armored personnel carriers around the town of Gori, that has all but disappeared.

I haven't seen the uniformed Georgian soldier. Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, he said that the withdrawal from Gori would be for the army to resume new protective positions to protect the capital. But I'm not seeing any sign of these defenses or fortifications right now. It looks like an open road into the Georgian capital.

MONTAGNE: There are reports that the Russians have opened a second front in the west of the country. What do you know about that?

WATSON: We've heard that one town next to the breakaway region of Kazia(ph), the Russian-backed breakaway region, that Russian troops did in fact move into that town. They took over a police station there and one other town in that area. So, definitely there have been Russian movements forward into Georgian territory in the western part of this small republic.

MONTAGNE: And with Russians still bombing and fighting going on, how are people handling this?

WATSON: There's a great deal of fear. Yesterday there were scenes of panic. Banks had been closed in the Georgian capital today. One Georgian woman who I met in the town of Gori, she was packed into a car by a policeman with a number of other young women last night as the Georgian army was retreating and that policeman brought those young women away from Gori to the capital to safety for fear of what could happen to young women in the town of Gori if and when Russian forces enter that city.

So, that's a sense of the fear here. There are also a number of refugees that you can find sleeping in the benches in the train station in T'bilisi who fled Gori and are now sleeping with their families on the ground and on streets. So, quite a bit of fear and apprehension and nobody really knowing what will come next.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson speaking to us on the road between the town of Gori and Georgia's capital, T'bilisi. Ivan, thanks much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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