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Saturday 25 May 2019

War and peace

Fireworks explode as the torch is lit during the opening ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympics yesterday
Fireworks explode as the torch is lit during the opening ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympics yesterday

Richard Spencer in Beijing and Adrian Blomfield in Georgia

Hundreds of countries yesterday set aside their differences to participate in the most spectacular opening to the Olympic Games in history.

But neighbours Russia and Georgia used the diversion of the biggest sporting event on earth to start a bloody war.

Several hundred were reported dead last night after Russian forces responded to a Georgian attack on rebels in the breakaway province of South Ossetia by mounting a full-scale invasion. As Georgia launched a major offensive to retake the region, Russian tanks rolled south towards the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

The fighting broke out as much of the world's attention was focused on the start of the Olympic Games and many leaders, including Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and US President George W Bush, were in Beijing.

The timing suggests that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili may have been counting on surprise to fulfil a pledge to win back control of South Ossetia -- a key to his hold on power. The war provided a graphic reminder of the enduring power of territorial and ethnic hatreds.

Mr Saakashvili agreed the timing was not coincidental, but accused Russia of being the aggressor. "Most decision makers have gone for the holidays,'' he said.

"Brilliant moment to attack a small country.''

The outcome of the struggle will determine the course of Russia's relations with its neighbours, could alter the relationship between the Kremlin and the West and crucially could decide the fate of energy supplies from the Caspian basin.

In contrast, the opening ceremony of the Games in Beijing marked the peaceful, joyful launch of the Olympics.

Worries about smog and protests over human rights were temporarily forgotten as the eyes of the world gazed in awe at the stunning extravaganza.

More than 90,000 spectators packed the Bird's Nest stadium to witness the start of the games. With a potential TV audience of billions, it was the biggest and mostly costly opening ceremony in the history of the Games.

But as the world watched, the sound of war thudded across South Ossetia.

Its separatist leader Eduard Kokoity claimed hundreds of civilians had been killed.

One witness said: "I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It's impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.''

Georgia accused Russian aircraft of bombing two military air bases destroying several aircraft. Russia's Defence Ministry said it was sending reinforcements for its peacekeepers, and a convoy of tanks crossed the border heading for the provincial capital.

Columns of Russian tanks filed into South Ossetia, plunging the neighbours into war and marking the Kremlin's first military assault on foreign soil since the Soviet Union's Afghanistan intervention, which ended in 1989.

The EU was last night trying to secure a ceasefire in the pro-Russian enclave. With the US, they sent a joint delegation to the region in a bid to halt the fighting. Nato called for an immediate end to the clashes and for direct talks between Russia and Georgia.

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