Georgia surrounds breakaway city, Russia alarmed
By Margarita Antidze 1 hour, 5 minutes ago
MEGVREKISI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgian troops surrounded the capital of breakaway South Ossetia on Friday after launching an assault and Russia called on the world community to avert "massive bloodshed."
Government forces moved into the rebel territory, which broke away from Georgia more than 15 years ago, after a fragile ceasefire collapsed in just a few hours on the eve of Russian-mediated peace talks.
Russian news agencies said Georgian forces had launched a tank-led assault on the capital, Tskhinvali, and Russian television reported that at least 15 people had been killed by shelling.
Separatists, who have controlled the region since the early 1990s, vowed to repel the attack without calling for help from Moscow, their main backer.
In a sign of broadening conflict, hundreds of volunteers from Russia and Georgia's other breakaway region of Abkhazia headed to South Ossetia to support the separatist forces, Russian news agencies reported.
In New York, members of the U.N. Security Council agreed to a Russian request and were due to hold a rare late-night session to discuss the crisis.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, in a late-night statement, appealed for efforts to prevent huge bloodshed.
"It is not too late to avert massive bloodshed and new victims," it said. "Russia will continue efforts to avert the bloodshed and restore peace in South Ossetia."
"We hope our foreign partners will not remain impartial in this difficult moment, when the fate of hundreds of thousands people is decided," it said. "The Georgian leadership should ... return to civilized ways of solving complicated problems."
"Tskhinvali is surrounded by Georgian forces," Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili told Reuters, adding that government forces had taken control of five Ossetian villages loyal to separatists.
A Reuters reporter saw intense fire from heavy weapons at different locations skirting Tskhinvali. The reporter heard heavy fighting coming from the direction of the city.
The night sky was lit up blue and red by explosions and Georgian forces appeared to be firing Katyusha rockets.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Thursday announced a unilateral truce after a week of clashes in which nearly 20 people were killed.
Officials from the two sides had been due to hold peace talks at a Russian peacekeeping base on Friday.
But Georgia then accused separatists of shelling its villages and launched a large-scale military operation.
"We are forced to restore constitutional order in the whole region," the commander of Georgian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Mamuka Kurashvili, told Georgian television.
"I confirm that there are at least 15 dead," said a Russian television correspondent, Andrei Chistyakov, reporting from Tskhinvali. "These are the people whose bodies were seen in their yards and in the streets," he said.
Interfax news agency said Georgian forces had launched a tank assault on the southern outskirts of Tskhinvali, which is about 100 km (60 miles) north of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, at 3.30 a.m. local time (2330 GMT on Thursday).
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity earlier said the Georgians had failed in their initial attempt to seize the city and he confidently predicted that Georgian forces would be "put to shame."
The issue of Georgia's breakaway regions has bedeviled its relations with its ex-Soviet master, Russia, which is angered by Tbilisi's drive under the pro-Western Saakashvili to join the NATO military alliance.
When he came to power in 2003, Saakashvili pledged to restore Georgian control over its entire territory, though Georgian officials, under pressure from the West, have often said they would not use force to take the rebel regions back.
Russian television showed pictures of Tskhinvali with fire from burning houses in the distance. Correspondents said the shelling was so heavy, that it was impossible to move around in the city.
Russian envoy Yuri Popov said Georgia's military operation showed it could not be trusted and he said NATO should reconsider its plans to grant membership to Tbilisi, he said.
Interfax news agency quoted officials in North Ossetia, that borders South Ossetia, and in Abkhazia as saying hundreds of volunteers were on their way to lend support to the separatist leadership.
The crisis has deepened fears of full-blown war in the region, which is emerging as a vital energy transit route and where Russia and the West are vying for influence.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana discussed the situation by telephone with Saakashvili.
"Solana expressed his serious concern about the situation in South Ossetia and called for every effort to be made to rapidly end the violence and resume peaceful talks between the sides," an EU statement said.
Fitch's head of emerging European sovereigns, Edward Parker, told Reuters prolonged warfare could prompt the ratings agency to downgrade Georgia from its current BB-rating with stable outlook and have an impact on foreign investment.