Georgian athletes follow violence back home

Aug. 10, 2008, 2:40 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Nearly three dozen Olympic athletes from Georgia are anxiously following the news of violence in a breakaway region of their country, following a bombardment by Russian tanks, planes and artillery.

"All of them are nervous," said team spokesman Giorgi Tchanishvili.

The Georgian government decided to keep the 35-member team at the Beijing Olympics, he told The Associated Press.

"They have to concentrate on competition, but it's very tough," he said. "But we are together, all of us."

He told the AP early Sunday that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili sent a message to the team, saying it would be better for Georgia if the athletes remained at the games. Tchanishvili said the team was ready to leave if it would help.

The Georgian team lives only a few dozen yards (meters) away from the much larger Russian team, but there have been no problems, he said.

Members of both teams even chatted on the infield of National Stadium during Friday night's opening ceremony and everything was "absolutely normal," Tchanishvili said. "We know it is the Olympic games, and all of us sportsmen ... want everything to be normal."

Russian team spokesman Gennady Shvets agreed, saying the two teams had a "normal relationship."

International Olympic Committee spokesman Giselle Davies said Sunday both countries are "here in a sporting context and they've confirmed their participation - very much in the light of respect, friendship, athlete-to-athlete. We have no reason to have any concerns on that."

That was borne out later Sunday when silver medalist Natalia Paderina of Russia shared the medal podium with bronze winner Nino Salukvadze in the women's 10-meter air pistol competition. Paderina put her arm around Salukvadze, then gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Russia sent tanks and troops into the separatist province of South Ossetia and bombed Georgian towns Saturday in a major escalation of the conflict that has left hundreds of dead and wounded. Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, launched a major offensive Friday to retake control of the province. Russia, which has close ties to the province and posts peacekeepers there, responded by sending in armed convoys and military combat aircraft.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that some 1,500 people have been killed, but that figure could not be independently confirmed. Both claim the battle started after the other side violated a cease-fire that had been declared just hours earlier after a week of sporadic clashes.

Two members of the Georgian team - weightlifters Albert Kuzilov and Arsen Kasabiev - are from South Ossetia, Tchanishvili said.

"When the war is in your country, at such a time it is very difficult for them, for all of us," he added.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili proposed a cease-fire Saturday. Russia did not immediately respond to the proposal.

IOC officials deplored the violence, especially at a time when the world's athletes had gathered for the games. The IOC and the U.N. General Assembly traditionally call for observance of an "Olympic Truce" during the period of the games.

U.S. IOC member Jim Easton called for the violence to stop for the duration of the Olympics.

"We are trying to say, 'hey, let's have a truce for at least the Olympic Games, so we bring some peace to the world even for two weeks.' The timing couldn't be worse. War is not great at any time, but to have it on the first day of the Olympic competition was pretty bad timing," he said.

Beach volleyballer Cristine Santanna, a native Brazilian who plays for Georgia, said earlier that the "Olympics is a time for peace now."

"I see all the nations get together. ... I am very upset about it. I wish everybody would be at peace, especially during the Olympics," she said.

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Associated Press writers Jimmy Golen and Stephen Wilson contributed to this report.

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