Fighting with Russia spreads to cities across Georgia

A warplane drops bombs near the Georgian city of Gori on Friday as Russian and Georgian forces battled.

TBLISI, Georgia (CNN)Bombs rocked Tbilisi early Saturday morning as the fight between Georgia and Russia over a breakaway region intensified and moved into the Georgian capital.

Government buildings, including the Parliament, were evacuated when the bombs fell.

Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Irakali Alasania, said during a special session of the Security Council that the foreign minister had informed him of bombs falling on the Black Sea port of Poti and the Viziani airfield near Tbilisi.

Georgian television reported that the port had been destroyed.

Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet state, are fighting over the disputed Caucasus region of South Ossetia, a pro-Russian autonomous region of Georgia.

South Ossetians want independence or unification with North Ossetia, which is in Russia.

Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia on Thursday, aiming to crack down on the separatists. Russia responded Friday, sending troops into the Georgian province where it had peacekeepers stationed.

“I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars,” Lyudmila Ostayeva, a resident of the South Ossetia capital, Tskhinvali, told The Associated Press on Friday.

“It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged,” she said after fleeing to a village near the Russian border, AP reported.

One U.S. State Department official called the conflict a “very dangerous situation” and said diplomatic moves are afoot around the globe to stop it.

Georgia — on the Black Sea coast between Russia and Turkey — appealed for diplomatic intervention. Video Watch Georgian minister describe fighting in South Ossetia »

Georgia asked the United States for planes to bring back its 2,000 troops serving as part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, a U.S. official said.

“All day today, they’ve been bombing Georgia from numerous warplanes and specifically targeting [the] civilian population, and we have scores of wounded and dead among [the] civilian population all around the country,” Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, said Friday. “This is the worst nightmare one can encounter.” Video Watch the interview with Saakashvili »

Eduard Kokoity, head of the rebel government in South Ossetia, said that 1,400 people were killed in the province, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Hundreds of people, possibly thousands, are fleeing South Ossetia to the Russian region of North Ossetia-Alania, the United Nations reported Friday, citing Russian officials. About 400 more are believed to have fled for other parts of Georgia, the United Nations said.

Georgian troops fire rockets at South Ossetian rebels near Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.

Russian military vehicles line the road to South Ossetia.

Asked whether Georgia and Russia were now at war, Saakashvili said, “my country is in self-defense against Russian aggression. Russian troops invaded Georgia.”

About 150 Russian armored vehicles have entered South Ossetia, Saakashvili said, and Georgian forces had shot down two Russian aircraft. Video Watch the Russian tanks moving into the area »

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, quoted by Interfax, said Russians had died because of Georgian military operations in South Ossetia.

Russia “will not allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished,” and “those guilty will receive due punishment,” he said. “My duty as Russian president is to safeguard the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they are. This is what is behind the logic of the steps we are undertaking now.”

South Ossetia, with a population of about 70,000, declared independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, but it was not internationally recognized. Many ethnic Ossetians feel close to Russia and have Russian passports and use its currency. Are you there? Share your photos, videos

Interfax quoted the Georgian Foreign Ministry as saying that strikes by Russian aircraft killed and wounded personnel at a Georgian air base and that Russian planes have been bombing Georgian territory throughout the day. Georgian officials also report four Russian aircraft shot down.

The U.S., NATO and the European Union have all called for an end to the fighting. President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin discussed the conflict Friday, the White House confirmed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his counterparts in the United States and Germany and the European Union’s foreign policy chief that Georgia was the aggressor and should immediately withdraw its troops from South Ossetia.

In a letter addressed to his “fellow citizens” Friday, Saakashvili said that he had mobilized tens of thousands of reserve officers and that the mobilization continued.

“We must unite,” Saakashvili wrote. “All of us, hundreds of thousands of Georgians here and abroad, should come together, unite, and fight to save Georgia. We are a freedom-loving people, and if our nation is united, no aggressor will be able to harm it.”

By early evening Friday, a Georgian Cabinet minister said the country’s forces have taken control of Tskhinvali, Interfax reported.

The Novosti news agency, citing the South Ossetian government, said Georgian tanks and infantry attacked Tskhinvali, and “a large part of the city has been destroyed. Over 15 civilians have been killed, several buildings are on fire in the city center, and the local parliament building has burned down.”

But Russian and South Ossetian officials said Russia was making inroads in fighting Georgian forces.

“Street fighting in Tskhinvali has lasted for many hours. Ossetian home guards are using grenade-launchers to destroy Georgian tanks. Eyewitnesses say tanks are burning throughout the city. The turning point is approaching in the battle for the capital city,” said the Web site of the South Ossetian Information and Press Committee.

The committee also said Russian armored vehicles have entered the northern suburb of the city.

Violence has been mounting in the region in recent days, with sporadic clashes between Georgian forces and South Ossetian separatists.

Georgian troops launched attacks in South Ossetia late Thursday after a top government official said a unilateral cease-fire offer was met with separatist artillery fire.

Alexander Lomaia, the secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, said Georgian troops responded proportionately to separatist mortar and artillery attacks on two villages, attacks he said followed the cease-fire and Saakashvili’s call for negotiations.

Russian peacekeepers are in South Ossetia under a 1992 agreement by Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian authorities to maintain what has been a fragile peace. The mixed peacekeeping force also includes Georgian and South Ossetian troops.


Source: CNN

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