Russia has Caused a Refugee Crisis

The Age reports:

RUSSIAN forces divided Georgia into two yesterday before halting the military incursion – leaving George Bush head to head with Vladimir Putin, who has asserted his control over Russia and his own President. Last night Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that the military operation had ceased, just as French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Moscow for peace talks and the United Nations estimated that there were more than 100,000 refugees as a result of the conflict.

“The purpose of the operation has been achieved … the security of our peacekeeping forces and the civilian population has been restored,” Mr Medvedev said. “The aggressor has been punished and suffered significant losses.”

Troops, however, were not withdrawn. A senior Russian military commander, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said a ceasefire and a halt of advances into Georgia did not mean that operations would be scrapped.

The number of people displaced by the conflict has reached 100,000, the UN refugee agency said.

The UNHCR said numbers supplied by the Georgian and Russian governments indicated that about 30,000 South Ossetians had moved into North Ossetia and that up to 12,000 displaced were in South Ossetia itself.

A few thousand have fled south from South Ossetia into Georgia proper, while 56,000 people from the Gori region in Georgia have also been displaced, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said, quoting figures from Georgian officials.

Earlier in New York at the United Nations, Russia’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Russia was intent on disabling Georgia’s military.

Mr Churkin denied occupying the city of Gori, which is largely deserted and had been bombed. But Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russian forces had occupied it, dividing the nation by closing its only east-west highway.

“Russia’s goal is to put an end to the existence of the Georgian state,” Mr Saakashvili said in a televised address to his nation.

Russian Prime Minister Mr Putin, in weekend comments previously unreported, made it clear Russia would act as it chose. “Russia has played a positive, stabilising role in the Caucasus for centuries … This is how it was in the past and this is how it is going to be in future. Let there be no doubt about this,” he said.

In Washington, at the White House Rose Garden, President Bush replied: “Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century. Russia’s Government must respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Russian Government must reverse the course it appears to be on.”

He then moved into speculation. “It now appears that an effort may be under way to depose Georgia’s duly elected Government. I am deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops … are threatening Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. There’s evidence that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was not trying to remove Mr Saakashvili, but “it would be best if he left”.

Mr Bush’s statements put him at odds with what Mr Putin said hours earlier, when he maintained that his nation’s incursion was in defence of ethnic Russians being slaughtered by the Georgian army, which acted first.

“The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing,” Mr Putin said about Western politicians, accusing them of turning “white into black, black into white” and of blaming the victim. He was seconded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Hostilities started when Georgian troops moved last Friday into South Ossetia, a breakaway province. Claims emerged yesterday that Russia fired on Georgian villages first. Both sides allege “ethnic cleansing”.

Mr Putin is making decisions that could redraw the map of the Caucasus, and destroy relationships with the West.

If there were any doubts, the past week has confirmed that Mr Putin, who earlier this year became Prime Minister after eight years as president, is running Russia, not his successor, President Medvedev.

The constitution banned Mr Putin from running for a third term; instead he is running the nation from the lower position of prime minister.

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