Russian jets stage Georgia raids as Moscow-US tensions worsen
Advancing Russian forces on Monday took a key Georgian city and the country's armed forces retrenched to defend the capital, a top Georgian official said.
Russian troops occupied Gori, close to the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgia's National Security Council secretary Alexander Lomaia told AFP amid growing international calls for a halt to the fighting which has left hundreds reported dead and forced tens of thousands out of their homes.
"Georgian armed forces received an order to leave Gori and to fortify positions near Mtskheta to defend the capital," said Lomaia. "This is a total onslaught." Mtskheta is 24 kilometres (15 miles) from Tbilisi.
The UN refugee agency said earlier that 80 percent of the 50,000 population of Gori had fled the city because of Russian attacks. Georgian officials said that Russian jets had earlier bombed the city.
Russian forces also carried out military operations around the western Georgian city of Senaki to prevent Georgian troops from regrouping and heading back into South Ossetia -- the cause of the worsening Russia-Georgia conflict, news agencies reported quoting the Russian defence ministry.
A Russian military spokesman said 9,000 troops and more than 350 armoured vehicles would be deployed to bolster forces inside the second Georgian separatist region of Abhkazia.
Russia and Georgia traded accusations that each was launching attacks, while aid agencies warned of a mounting humanitarian crisis, heightening urgency to international efforts to secure a halt to the fighting.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finland's Alexander Stubb were to put a peace plan to Russian leaders on Tuesday having persuaded Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili to sign up for the European Union plan, a senior Georgian official told AFP.
But diplomatic tensions between Russia and the United States held up efforts to pass a UN Security Council call for an end to the fighting over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The Georgian foreign ministry said more than 50 Russian warplanes had flown over Georgian territory. "Tbilisi was bombed. Bombs hit the village of Kojori and Makhata mountain," it said.
The South Ossetian separatist government said Georgia had resumed an artillery bombardment of its capital, Tskhinvali, where residents have reported many deaths.
As fighting intensified, US President George W. Bush, Georgia's biggest western ally, said he told Russia's prime minister that Russia's bombing of Georgia was "unacceptable."
"I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia," the US president told NBC television from Beijing.
Putin responded by accusing the United States of trying to disrupt the Russian military operation by transporting Georgian troops from Iraq into the "conflict zone."
"It seems that this will not change anything, but will move us away from resolving the situation," said Putin.
Putin compared the actions of Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili to war crimes perpetrated by deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Russia's military acknowledged it had lost 18 soldiers and four planes in the conflict but gave no details of its latest operations.
Saakashvili told foreign reporters several hundred Russian servicemen had been killed and 18 or 19 Russian aircraft shot down.
The EU plan he signed up to calls for a ceasefire, medical help for victims, controlled withdrawals of troops on both sides and eventual political talks.
On Tuesday, Kouchner and Stubb will meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said Stubb, current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will go to Georgia on Tuesday, Saakashvili told journalists. Sarkozy is also due in Moscow to try to hammer out a ceasefire, Kouchner said.
In Washington, foreign ministers from the G7 countries Monday urged Russia to accept an immediate ceasefire called by Georgia after a telephone conference call, a US State Department official said.
But Moscow had launched its own diplomatic campaign. In Brussels, Russia's Ambassador to NATO called on the alliance to hold an extraordinary Russia-NATO council Tuesday before taking any decision on Georgia.
Medvedev said he would like an OSCE mission deployed in South Ossetia, the Kremlin said.
Russia sent thousands of troops, tanks and air support into South Ossetia on Friday after Georgia launched an offensive to seize control of the province, which broke from Georgia in the early 1990s.
The UN Security Council was set for more talks Monday on a ceasefire call in Georgia after the United States and Russia traded barbs in Cold War-style exchanges.
[Source: Agence France Presse, Tbilisi, 11Aug08]
The Question of South Ossetia
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