Georgia calls for ceasefire in S. Ossetia
By Matt Robinson 1 hour, 2 minutes ago
GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgia called for a ceasefire on Saturday after Russian bombers widened an offensive to force back Georgian troops seeking control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
President George W. Bush said Russian attacks on Georgia outside South Ossetia marked a "dangerous escalation" of the crisis and urged Moscow to halt the bombing immediately.
Russia said it had seized the rebel capital, Tskhinvali, but Georgia denied the claim on the second day of fighting that threatens oil and gas pipelines seen as crucial in the West.
Russian officials said the death toll now stood at 1,500 and 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia had fled to Russia over the past 36 hours. Russia said two of its warplanes had been shot down and 12 of its soldiers had been killed.
"I call for an immediate ceasefire," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in Tbilisi. "Russia has launched a full scale military invasion of Georgia."
Russia's military response to the crisis dramatically intensified a long-running stand-off between Russia and the pro-Western Georgian leadership that has sparked alarm in the West and led to angry exchanges at the United Nations reminiscent of the Cold War.
Abkhazia, another pro-Russian enclave in Georgia, said its forces had begun an operation to drive out Georgian forces. One report from a pro-Georgian spokesman said Russian planes had carried out bombing raids, but the Abkhaz separatists said it was their aircraft that were involved.
Bush, Saakashvili's main ally in the West, said Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected.
"I'm deeply concerned about the situation in Georgia," said Bush, who is attending the Olympics in Beijing. "The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia. They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis."
STATE OF WAR
Georgia's parliament approved a state of war across the country for the next 15 days, while Russia accused the West of contributing to the violence by supplying Georgia with arms.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic whose pro-Western government now wants membership of NATO and the European Union, had encouraged Georgia to carry out "ethnic cleansing" in South Ossetia, the Russian foreign ministry said.
Russia, which sent in tanks to back the South Ossetians, said its forces had taken the enclave's capital.
"Tactical groups have fully liberated Tskhinvali from the Georgian military ... " Tass quoted Russian Ground Forces commander Vladimir Boldyrev as saying.
Georgia said it still held the city.
"Tskhinvali is now under the complete control of our troops," Khakha Lomaia, the secretary of the Georgian National Security Council said in Tbilisi.
A Russian journalist said the South Ossetian capital had been badly damaged. "The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many wounded," Zaid Tsarnayev told Reuters from Tskhinvali.
"I was in the hospital yesterday where I saw many civilian wounded. The hospital was later destroyed by a Georgian jet. I don't know whether the wounded were still there."
Russian jets carried out up to five raids on mostly military targets around the Georgian town of Gori, close to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. He saw at least one bomb hit an apartment block, killing 5 people.
A woman knelt in the street and screamed over the body of a dead man as the bombed apartment block burned nearby. Another old woman covered in blood stared into the distance and a man knelt by the road, his head in his hands.
Russia said the death toll in the two-day conflict had hit 1,500 and was rising, prompting warnings from President Dmitry Medvedev of a humanitarian catastrophe that Moscow was determined to halt by force.
"Our peacekeepeers and reinforcement units are currently running an operation to force the Georgian side to (agree to) peace," Russian news agencies quoted Medvedev as saying.
Russian troops poured into South Ossetia on Friday, hours after Georgia launched a major offensive aimed at restoring control over the province.
Russia is the main backer of South Ossetian separatists and the majority of the population, who are ethnically distinct from Georgians, have been given Russian passports.
The Russian military said more reinforcements were on their way but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was not seeking all-out war with Georgia.
Georgia was planning to bring its entire Iraq contingent of 2,000 soldiers home as soon as the United States can provide transport, the commander of the unit said on Saturday.
Each side blamed the other for the outbreak of fighting in the pro-Moscow enclave, which broke from Georgia when the Soviet Union was nearing collapse in the early 1990s.