Georgia launched a major military offensive today to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Rebel leaders said about 1,400 had been killed.
The offensive prompted Moscow to send tanks into the region in a furious response that threatens to engulf Georgia, a staunch US ally, and Russia in all-out war.
It was by far the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de-facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. Witnesses said the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali was devastated.
The president of the Georgian breakaway region, Eduard Kokoity, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying: "About 1,400 died. We will check these figures, but the order of the numbers is around this. We have this on the basis of reports from relatives."
Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, who had fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia, said: "I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It's impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged."
The fighting broke out as much of the world's attention was focused on the start of the Olympic Games and many leaders, including Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and US President George Bush, were on their way to Beijing.
The timing suggests Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili may have been counting on surprise to fulfill his longtime pledge to wrest back control of South Ossetia — a key to his hold on power.
Saakashvili agreed the timing was not coincidental, but accused Russia of being the aggressor. "Most decision makers have gone for the holidays," he said in an interview with CNN. "Brilliant moment to attack a small country."
South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoity claimed hundreds of civilians had been killed.
Ten Russian peacekeepers were killed and 30 wounded when their barracks were hit in Georgian shelling, said Russian Ground Forces spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov.
Speaking earlier on Georgian television, Saakashvili accused Russia of sending aircraft to bomb Georgian territory, which Russia denied.
Russia's Defense Ministry said it was sending reinforcements for its peacekeepers, and Russian state television and Georgian officials reported a convoy of tanks had crossed the border. The convoy was expected to reach the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, by evening, Channel One television said.
Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili said government troops were now in full control of the city.
"We are facing Russian aggression," said Georgia's Security Council chief Kakha Lomaya. "They have sent in their troops and weapons and they are bombing our towns."
Putin has warned that the Georgian attack will draw retaliation and the Defense Ministry pledged to protect South Ossetians, most of whom have Russian citizenship.
Chairing a session of his Security Council in the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also vowed that Moscow will protect Russian citizens.
"In accordance with the constitution and federal law, I, as president of Russia, am obliged to protect lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located," Medvedev said, according to Russian news reports. "We won't allow the death of our compatriots go unpunished."
Georgia, which borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union. The country has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership — a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its influence in the region.
An AP reporter saw tanks and other heavy weapons concentrating on the Russian side of the border with South Ossetia — supporting the Russian TV reports of an incursion.
Some villagers were fleeing into Russia.
"I saw them (the Georgians) shelling my village," said Maria, who gave only her first name. She looked shocked and was reluctant to speak. She said she and other villagers spent the night in a field and then fled toward the Russian border as the fighting escalated.
Georgia declared a three-hour ceasefire to allow civilians to leave Tskhinvali. Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said troops were observing the ceasefire, which began at 3 p.m. local time (1100 GMT).
Yakobashvili said Georgian forces have shot down four Russian combat planes over Georgian territory. He gave no details. Russia's Defense Ministry denied an earlier Georgia report about one Russian plane downed and has had no immediate comment on the latest claim.
Yakobashvili said that one Russian plane had dropped a bomb on the Vaziani military base near the Georgian capital, but no one was hurt.
More than 1,000 US Marines and soldiers were at the base last month to teach combat skills to Georgian troops. Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq, making it the third-largest contributor to coalition forces after the US and Britain.
NATO has called for an immediate end to fighting. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he is seriously concerned about the fighting and that the alliance is closely following the situation. The White House said Russia and Georgia should cease hostilities and hold talks to end the conflict.
South Ossetia officials said Georgia attacked with aircraft, armor and heavy artillery. Georgian troops fired missiles at Tskhinvali, an official said, and many buildings were on fire. The city's main hospital was among the buildings hit by Georgian shelling, the Russian news agency Interfax said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it is seeking to open a humanitarian corridor to guarantee safe access to Tskhinvali. Maia Kardova, ICRC spokeswoman in Tbilisi, said military vehicles are being given priority on the main road leading to the South Ossetia capital and this is making it difficult for rescue vehicles to get through.
Saakashvili said Russian aircraft bombed several Georgian villages and other civilian facilities.
"A full-scale aggression has been launched against Georgia," Saakashvili said in a televised statement.
He also announced a full military mobilization with reservists being called into action.
Seven civilians were wounded when three Russian Su-24 jet bombers flew into Georgia and bombed the town of Gori and the villages of Kareli and Variani, Deputy Interior Minister Eka Sguladze said at a briefing.
She said that four Russian jets later bombed Gori, the hometown of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but that raid didn't cause any casualties.
Saakashvili urged Russia to immediately stop bombing Georgian territory. "Georgia will not yield its territory or renounce its freedom," he said.
A senior Russian diplomat in charge of the South Ossetian conflict, Yuri Popov, dismissed the Georgian claims of Russian bombings, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
Russia's Defense Ministry denounced the Georgian attack as a "dirty adventure."
"Blood shed in South Ossetia will weigh on their conscience," the ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site.
"We will protect our peacekeepers and Russian citizens," it said without elaboration.
Saakashvili long has pledged to restore Tbilisi's rule over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia. Both regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and built up ties with Moscow.
Most residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have Russian passports. An open war could prompt Russian to send in more forces under the claim of protecting its citizens.
Putin, speaking in televised remarks Friday, said Georgia's military action causes "grave concern and it will certainly lead to retaliatory actions."
Saakashvili said government troops have seized the outskirts of Tskhinvali and are fighting for control of the center. Georgian forces also have seized several villages around the capital.
Gen. Mamuka Kurashvili, a Georgian military officer in charge of operations in the region, said on Rustavi 2 television that Georgian forces were moving to "establish constitutional order in the region."
The leader of Russia's province of North Ossetia rushed to Tskhinvali. "We are jointly organizing defenses here," Teimuraz Mamsurov said in the city, according to the Interfax news agency.
Mamsurov said hundreds of volunteers from North Ossetia were streaming across the border into South Ossetia, Interfax said. It also quoted the separatist leader of Abkhazia as saying that some 1,000 volunteers from his region were heading to South Ossetia.
Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili said Georgian officials were doing everything they could to avoid casualties and the destruction of property.
But Boris Chochiyev, a minister in the South Ossetian government, said that Georgian troops shelled the center of Tskhinvali with truck-launched missiles. He asked the Russian government to defend South Ossetians.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov called on Tbilisi to commit itself to peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Yakobashvili said Georgia was ready to negotiate, but claimed the South Ossetian officials were dragging their feet in starting talks.
At the request of Russia, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session in New York but failed to reach consensus early Friday on a Russian-drafted statement.
The council concluded it was at a stalemate after the US, Britain and some other members backed the Georgians in rejecting a phrase in the three-sentence draft statement that would have required both sides "to renounce the use of force," council diplomats said.
The Georgian attack came just hours after Saakashvili announced a unilateral cease-fire in a television broadcast late Thursday in which he also urged South Ossetian separatist leaders to enter talks on resolving the conflict.
Georgian officials later blamed South Ossetian separatists for thwarting the cease-fire by shelling Georgian villages in the area.Reuse content