The deadly conflict in Georgia seems to be spreading outside the South Ossetia region and into Abkhazia, a senior United Nations peacekeeping official told the Security Council today, warning that the number of casualties from the fighting is already substantial.
Edmond Mulet, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, briefed Council members on the latest developments in Georgia, where Georgian forces are fighting Russian and South Ossetian forces.
Media reports say hundreds of people, mostly civilian, have been killed because of the clashes, while the city of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia has suffered substantial damage. Thousands of people have fled into neighbouring North Ossetia or into other parts of Georgia.
Mr. Mulet told reporters after the closed-door briefing that there had already been “very substantial numbers of casualties, refugees and destruction” in South Ossetia since fighting erupted there earlier this week.
Council members have met three times over the past 36 hours to discuss the situation in South Ossetia, but so far they have been unable to reach agreement on any formal action.
Mr. Mulet said the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), which has been in place since 1993 to monitor the ceasefire deal between Georgia and Abkhaz authorities in north-western Georgia, said it expects Abkhaz forces to launch a military operation in the Upper Kodori Valley as early as tomorrow morning.
He said UNOMIG withdrew its patrols from the valley today for safety and security reasons after Abkhaz authorities contacted the mission and asked it to do so, without giving any reasons for the request. He added that Abkhaz forces have already started shelling in the valley.
UN officials, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have voiced serious concern as the violence has escalated, and stressed the need for the fighting to stop and for humanitarian access to affected civilians.
Yesterday Georgian Ambassador Irakli Alasania told a Council meeting that Russian forces had launched a “full-scale military invasion” of Georgian territory, with tanks and personnel entering the country and jets bombing airfields, military bases and villages.
Mr. Alasania called on Russia to withdraw its forces, to stop the bombing campaign and to negotiate a ceasefire, adding that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was willing to take part in dialogue with Moscow.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the meeting that it was Georgia that had carried out “a treacherous attack” on South Ossetia, in violation of a 1996 agreement ending earlier fighting between the Georgian and South Ossetian sides and in spite of Russian calls for negotiations. He called on the Georgian forces to withdraw from South Ossetia.
Mr. Churkin said Georgian forces were bombarding towns, including those outside the immediate conflict zones, and had created panic among the civilian population, many of whom were now trying to flee to safety.