Russia and Georgia were effectively at war last night with fierce fighting near the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia and hundreds of civilians reported dead.
A column of 150 Russian tanks and other military vehicles entered South Ossetia yesterday after Georgian troops launched a major offensive to retake control of the area from Ossetian rebels late on Thursday night.
The Georgian government said 30 people were killed in bombing raids by Russian jets, which it said had attacked the capital, Tbilisi, the Black Sea port of Poti and a military base at Senaki in addition to targets within South Ossetia, still formally part of Georgia.
The Russian intervention, which Moscow said was to protect its peacekeeping forces stationed there, came as a minister in the separatist administration of South Ossetia claimed more than 1,400 people had died in shelling of the Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, by Georgian troops.
The Russian military said 12 of its troops had been killed and 150 wounded in the fighting inside South Ossetia. "Now our peacekeepers are waging a fierce battle with regular forces from the Georgian army in the southern region of [Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali," said a spokesman for the Russian force.
Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's President, claimed his troops had regained full control of the rebel capital and most of South Ossetia, while insisting that the Russians were to blame for the fighting and appealing for international help. "What Russia is doing in Georgia is open, unhidden aggression and a challenge to the whole world," he said. "If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital."
Mr Saakashvili, who has invoked the ire of Moscow for his desire to bring Georgia into Nato, said Georgia was being attacked by Russia because "we want to be free and we want to be a multi-ethnic democracy". He recalled the country's 2,000 soldiers fighting with coalition forces in Iraq, saying they were needed at home, and was preparing to bring in martial law.
The UN Security Council met for a second time in two days last night in a bid to head-off a full-scale war.
The secretary of Georgia's Security Council, Kakha Lomaia, said: "Russia has bombed the [Black Sea] port of Poti and the military base at Senaki. We think Russia has started to bomb civil and economic infrastructure."
Eka Zguladze, Georgia's Deputy Interior Minister, also said Russian jets had carried out "extensive bombing raids throughout Georgia". She said the targets had mostly been military but that bombs had hit a public market in the town of Gori, the nearest Georgian city to the conflict zone. She said Georgian forces had shot down four Russian jets, but that there were "still far too many" operating bombing raids.
The claims of 1,400 South Ossetian civilian dead were described as "disinformation and propaganda", by the Georgian foreign ministry. But witnesses in Tskhinvali painted a grim picture of events. "There are bodies of women, old people and children lying in the streets," said Vakhtang Dzhigkayev, an adviser to the South Ossetian president on economic issues, by telephone. "Make no mistake about it, this is already war. A very real, painful war."
Injured by an exploding mine, he had escaped with his family across the Caucasus mountains to Vladikavkaz in Russia, but insisted he had seen the carnage. "I have lived there throughout all the previous conflicts, including the war in the early 1990s, and they were always fought by soldiers against other soldiers," he said. "Now the difference is that it's the civilian population that's taking the brunt of the aggression."
Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, who fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia, said: "I saw bodies on the streets ... in cars. It's impossible to count them. There is hardly a single building undamaged."
Russia's military action was meant to quash what appears to have been a plan by the Georgians to retake South Ossetia, which has been a problem for Mr Saakashvili since he took office in the Western-backed Rose Revolution in 2003. He has repeatedly pledged to bring the region back under Tbilisi's control, but with Russia's military involvement, the gamble appears to have failed.
South Ossetia is a tiny region nestled on the slopes of the Caucasus mountains, the majority of which is controlled by a separatist regime that broke away from Georgia when the Soviet Union collapsed. The stated goal of the regime is independence, but it relies heavily on Russia for support. Russia has handed out passports in the region, which now enables it to enter the conflict on the pretext of "defending Russian citizens", and the Georgians claim the South Ossetian leadership is controlled by Russia's security services, the FSB.
The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, speaking in Beijing where he was attending the opening of the Olympic Games, spoke of "retaliation" against Georgia. President Dmitry Medvedev struck a similar tone at a meeting of the Russian Security Council in the Kremlin.
The US has largely supported Mr Saakashvili and has already given vast financial aid for Georgia to rebuild its military. Most of the soldiers fighting in South Ossetia have undergone training by US military personnel.
The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, urged Russia to withdraw combat troops from Georgia and stop air strikes.
Analysts said that after the initial burst, Russia and Georgia may pull back from all-out conflict. But for those caught up in the middle, that is little comfort.
Oil and nationalism – a troubled history
*South Ossetia lies on the southern slopes of the Caucasus, a mountain range that is home to some 50 different ethnic groups, many speaking mutually incomprehensible languages and with long histories of violent enmity. The Caucasus were brought under Russian control in a series of wars in the 19th century, fought against not only the often fiercely-independent local peoples but the Persians and the Ottomans, who coveted the high ground between the Black and Caspian seas.
*The people of the Caucasus, many of whom adhered to ancient traditions and were resentful of outsiders' attempts to control them, were perhaps the most troublesome subjects of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union that succeeded it. Stalin – whose father was reputed to be Ossetian – in 1922 divided control over Ossetia between the Georgian and Russian Soviet republics, a move which angered Ossetians and prompted occasional protests over subsequent decades. When the South Ossetians attempted in 1989 to reunite with ethnic kin in Russian-controlled North Ossetia, the Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia marched supporters into the region to confront the secessionists.
*In 1989-91, as the Kremlin's hold over its empire crumbled, the Caucasus witnessed a surge in nationalism. Regions like Chechnya declared independence from Moscow but in South Ossetia, local leaders proclaimed their region part of the Russian Federation rather than the emergent sovereign state of Georgia. Sporadic clashes between Georgians and South Ossetians – who had mostly lived together in peace for decades, often inter-marrying – continued until 1991, when Tbilisi sent in troops to crush the separatist movement. More than 2,000 people are believed to have died in the fighting.
*After a coup toppled Mr Gamsakhurdia as president, his successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, agreed a deal with Boris Yeltsin for Russian peacekeepers to monitor a ceasefire. When Mikheil Saakashvili, below, ousted Mr Shevardnadze in the 2003 Rose Revolution, he vowed to bring South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, back under Tbilisi's control. He accuses Russia of sending cash and weapons to separatists in both regions, to ensure continued Kremlin influence in the oil-rich Caucasus – the BTC pipeline carrying oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey is routed through Georgia – and to undermine Georgia's bid to join Nato. Russia has given passports to the vast majority of South Ossetians and Abkhazians, and pledges to defend its citizens in those provinces. Many South Ossetians say they expect other Caucasian peoples to support their fight against Georgia, and reports are emerging of volunteers heading for the region from Abkhazia and North Ossetia.