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Georgia-Russia Conflict Escalates Over Separatists

Russia sent tanks and warplanes into the former Soviet republic of Georgia on Friday after Georgia launched a military offensive to retake its breakaway province, South Ossetia.

A large number of civilians were reported dead as a result of the military action by Georgia and Russia in the worst outbreak of violence since South Ossetia won de facto independence from Georgia in 1992. Figures of the number killed vary widely from hundreds to more than a thousand. The region encompasses about 50,000 people.

Russia had hundreds of peacekeeping troops already in South Ossetia before Friday's events and said 10 of its peacekeepers were killed in fierce fighting. Georgia said 30 of its soldiers were killed by Russian artillery in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.


Georgia said Russian jets bombed air bases deep inside Georgia. The Georgians said they shot down several Russian planes, something Moscow denied.

"I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars," said Lyudmila Ostayeva, who fled the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali to a village near the border with Russia. "It's impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged."

War Of Words, Too

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia had been amassing troops on the border for months and used Georgia's efforts to retake control of the region as an excuse to invade.

"We are no longer in 1979. It's no longer Afghanistan. It's no longer Czechoslovakia of 1968," Saakashvili said, citing Soviet actions of the past. "You cannot bring in tanks like to Budapest in 1956."


Georgia's actions likewise infuriated the Russian leadership. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Beijing for the Olympics, condemned what he called Georgia's act of aggression.

"They've started a military operation using all kinds of heavy artillery and tanks," Putin said. "This is a very sad and worrying development to which of course we'll have to respond."

Diplomatic Efforts Begin

Western diplomats are scrambling to prevent the hostilities from turning into a major conflict that could engulf the entire Caucasus region. NATO and the European Union called for an immediate cease-fire.

In Washington, the U.S. also called for an immediate cease-fire. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making calls to top officials urging all parties to remain calm.

Gallegos said a U.S. envoy is traveling to the region Friday in hopes of bringing an end to hostilities. The U.S. supports Georgia's territorial integrity, he said.

U.S. Defense Department officials have had some contact with Georgian authorities, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. He said Georgia has not asked for U.S. help, but he would not give any details of the discussions.

According to Whitman, the U.S. has about 130 trainers in Georgia, including a few dozen civilians who are all working to prepare the Georgian forces for their next deployment to Iraq. However, Georgian officials announced Friday that they will withdraw 1,000 soldiers from Iraq to help fight off Russian forces in South Ossetia.

Georgia launched a major offensive into South Ossetia overnight, with Georgian fighter jets, heavy artillery and rocket attacks pounding positions inside Tskhinvali. Buildings were ablaze, and much of the city was damaged. The separatists evacuated women and children north of the border into Russia.

Saakashvili said his forces had "freed" the greater part of Tskhinvali, and he ordered a full-scale mobilization of military reservists. Georgian troops have been fighting pro-Moscow rebels in the separatist stronghold.

The Russian Defense Ministry had pledged to protect South Ossetians, most of whom have Russian citizenship, as the conflict in the region heated up.

Georgian officials said they launched the operation after a week of clashes between separatists and Georgian troops in which nearly 20 people were killed. Georgia aims to end South Ossetia's effective independence, won in a 1991-92 war.

From NPR and wire service reports

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