Sunday, August 10, 2008

Georgia Declares 'State of War' as Russian Bombs Fall

Russia Stages Bombing Raids as Ossetia Conflict Escalates

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Tblisi - Russian warplanes on Saturday carried out bombing raids across Georgia, reportedly leaving scores dead, as a conflict over control of South Ossetia widened well beyond the breakaway region.

Georgia's president declared "a state of war" and the United States led international calls for Russia to halt its military assault. But Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said his country would "force the Georgian side into peace" and accused Georgia of causing thousands of "victims".

Russia backs the separatist government in South Ossetia and sent in tanks and troops on Friday in response to pro-Western Georgia's military campaign to take back the province which broke away in the early 1990s.

Georgia said a Russian air raid had "completely devastated" the Black Sea port of Poti in attacks that the country's UN ambassador likened to "a full-scale military invasion".

This was followed up with air raids on Gori, the main Georgian city closest to South Ossetia and another near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline -- the world's second longest -- which Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told Georgian television was "miraculously" not damaged.

Russian planes carried out at least three attacks on Gori and the surrounding area, a defence ministry spokeswoman told AFP.

She said the attacks targeted a bridge and military bases, but also struck apartment blocks which were left in flames and witnesses told AFP that scores of people had been killed. Cars and buses loaded with people fled the city.

Georgia, a close US ally, said it would withdraw its 2,000 troops backing US forces in Iraq and the army faced new pressure when the Russian-backed separatist administration in another region, Abkhazia, said they had begun a military operation against Georgian troops.

Abkhazia's self-styled foreign minister Sergei Shamba said the attacks on Georgian troops were in the Upper Kodori Gorge, a Georgian-controlled part of the region.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said the army had repelled the attacks.

He spoke shortly after declaring a state of war, a form of martial law, which was later approved by parliament.

"I have signed a decree on a state of war. Georgia is under a state of total military aggression by the Russian navy, air force, large-scale ground operations," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili urged his Russian counterpart Medvedev to stop the "this madness immediatley" and call a truce.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meanwhile arrived in Vladikavkaz, close to Russia's border with Georgia, Russian news agencies said.

A Putin spokesman said he was in Vladikavkaz to deal with an influx of refugees from South Ossetia.

Georgian and South Ossetian forces made rival claims to control Tskhinvali but Russia said it had "liberated" South Ossetia's main city after airlifting paratroopers.

"Tactical battalions have completely liberated Tskhinvali from Georgian military forces," General Vladimir Boldyrev, head of Russia's ground forces, told Russian news agencies.

The death toll from the first two days of fighting was disputed.

South Osettia's government said 1,600 people had been killed. Saakashvili dismissed the figure as a "truly Soviet-style disinformation campaign".

A top Georgian security official said 10 Russian aircraft had been shot down and 30 Russian tanks destroyed. Film of the body of one pilot was shown on Georgian television along with the identity card of another who the report said was shot down and captured.

Russia has said only that 15 of its soldiers had been killed and 150 wounded.

In the streets of Tskhinvali, home to an estimated 20,000 people, tanks burned and women and children ran for cover. An AFP reporter in South Ossetia saw women, children and elderly riding buses toward the Russian border.

Georgia has caused thousands of victims by its "barbaric" actions in South Ossetia, the Russian leader told US President George W. Bush in comments reported by the Kremlin after their talks.

Russia also accused Ukraine of "encouraging" Georgia to launch its military offensive in South Ossetia.

The United States and the European Union prepared a joint delegation to seek a ceasefire. Bush cut into his engagements during a visit to Beijing to call for an end to Russian bombing.

"We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops," Bush told reporters. "We call for an end to the Russian bombings."

The UN Security Council was to meet again Saturday to agree on a call for an immediate ceasefire after talks failed Friday. Poland called for an emergency EU summit on the crisis.

South Ossetia broke from Georgia in the early 1990s. It has been a constant source of friction between Georgia and Russia, which opposes Tbilisi's aspirations of joining NATO and has supported the separatists without recognising their independence.

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