30,000 homeless as a chaotic conflict intensifies

Putin condemns 'genocide' as eyewitnesses claim South Ossetia's capital is destroyed. Moscow missiles kill dozens in Georgia's frontline city as peace effort gets under way

As many as 2,000 people may have been killed and 30,000 made homeless as the chaotic conflict between Georgian and Russian forces in the pro-Moscow enclave of South Ossetia entered its second bloody day.

Georgia's parliament approved a state of war across the country for the next 15 days, while also calling for a ceasefire. The Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, said that there would be no talks until Georgian troops left the conflict zone. And, in what could be a second front, Abkhazia, another pro-Russian enclave in Georgia, said its forces had begun an operation to drive out Tbilisi's forces.

The situation on the ground in South Ossetia, most of whose population are ethnic Russians, remained highly confused. Russia said it had seized South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, but Georgia denied this. Russia, which sent in tanks to back the South Ossetians, said its forces had "liberated" the enclave's capital, but Georgia responded that Tskhinvali was under its "complete control".

A Russian journalist said Tskhinvali had been badly damaged. "The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many wounded," Zaid Tsarnayev told Reuters. Russian jets carried out up to five raids on mostly military targets around the Georgian town of Gori, close to the conflict zone in South Ossetia. But some missiles went astray, killing at least a dozen people. A woman knelt in the street and screamed over the body of a dead man, as a bombed apartment block burned nearby.

Russia said two of its warplanes had been shot down, 13 of its soldiers killed and 70 wounded. The Georgians said the Russian jets had targeted the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that carries oil to Turkey, but had so far failed to damage it. It was difficult to know if this was a statement of fact, or an attempt to garner sympathy and support from the West.

The casualty tolls were also much confused. Russia's figure of 2,000 dead and 30,000 homeless was largely supported by South Ossetian leaders, who said that about 1,400 had died there since Friday. Georgia said only 129 people had been killed, but this is believed to refer only to the death toll for the town of Gori. UN officials put the number of refugees from South Ossetia at between 2,400 and 5,000.

The conflict began when Russian troops poured into South Ossetia on Friday, hours after Georgia launched an offensive aimed at restoring control over the separatist province.

In Tbilisi, people were nervous but defiant. Most supported their leadership but had been shocked by the Russian reaction. "To fight Russia is crazy," said Giga Kvenetadze, 30, a music studio owner. "But I do support [Georgia's President, Mikheil] Saakashvili. And what Russia is doing is wrong. They must stop."

The war of words at the highest levels was no less intense. Mr Saakashvili said in Tbilisi: "Russia has launched a full-scale military invasion of Georgia." The US President, George Bush, said Russian attacks on Georgia marked a "dangerous escalation" of the crisis and urged Moscow to halt the bombing. In a phone call with Mr Bush, according to a Kremlin statement, Mr Medvedev "stressed that the only way out of the tragic crisis provoked by the Georgian leadership is a withdrawal by Tbilisi of its armed formations from the conflict zone". The Russian foreign ministry also charged that Ukraine, whose pro-Western government is seeking membership of Nato and the EU, had encouraged Georgia to carry out "ethnic cleansing" in South Ossetia.

The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who arrived in the North Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz last night, accused Georgia of committing "genocide", seeking "bloody adventures", and trying to involve other countries in a military conflict in its separatist region of South Ossetia. "Georgia's aspiration to join Nato... is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures," he said.

Last night, a Western delegation was on its way to Georgia to try to broker a ceasefire. Britain's Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, announced the mission involving a group of officials from the EU, the US, Nato and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. But Western powers have little influence in South Ossetia.

Moves were afoot last night for the UN Security Council to convene a second emergency meeting in two days. But there is little sign that outside pressure can produce an end to the fighting, the bloodiest since South Ossetia won effective independence from Georgia in 1992.

But the crisis feeds directly into the rivalry between the US and the assertive, energy-rich Russia of Vladimir Putin and his successor, Mr Medvedev. Mr Bush has built close personal and ideological bonds with the Georgian President, strongly supporting the latter's efforts to have his country enter Nato.

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