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Russia Steps Up Assault As Georgia Withdraws

The fierce fighting between Russia and its neighbor Georgia shows no sign of letting up. Instead, there are reports Monday that Russia has moved deeper into Georgian territory.

The conflict began Thursday after the Georgians tried to retake a breakaway region called South Ossetia. Russia, which supports the Ossetians, mounted a massive military response.

The Georgians were forced to withdraw and call for a cease-fire. On Sunday, the boom of artillery echoed in the distance as dozens of Georgian soldiers withdrew on foot through a deserted Georgian border village, just hours after the troops abandoned South Ossetia.

One Georgian soldier said Russian warplanes bombed them all Saturday night, and the troops were forced to withdraw because they were powerless against the airplanes.

If the Americans or Europeans don't help, he added, Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus region will go to Russia.

The Georgians attacked South Ossetia in an effort to regain control of a region that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. The South Ossetian separatists have been strongly supported by Russia ever since.

But with the Georgian army now in retreat, thousands of ethnic Georgians have been fleeing South Ossetia and bordering villages, packing cars and buses with belongings and even herding cattle to safety.

The Russians have spread panic among the Georgian population by carrying out airstrikes deep in Georgian territory. So far, most of the targets have been military, with several deadly exceptions.

Three apartment buildings in the Georgian town of Gori were hit by Russian airstrikes on Saturday morning. Some residents have begun filtering back to try to collect belongings that may have survived the airstrikes.

Evema Tavelidze spent the 24 hours after the airstrikes searching for her missing husband, Andrei. On Sunday, she sat weeping outside a hospital in Gori after she finally discovered her husband's body in the town morgue.

Inside the hospital, doctors said at least 15 people were killed and scores more wounded in the apartment airstrikes. Meanwhile, casualties continued to arrive from the fighting around South Ossetia.

Daveed Arabashvili lay in a hospital bed, wearing bloody bandages over shrapnel wounds to his head, stomach and shoulder. He started to explain that he was hit by an explosion while standing outside his house in a village near South Ossetia on Sunday, but then he doubled over, vomiting.

The doctors said they were terrified that Russian troops and tanks would advance from nearby South Ossetia and attack Gori.

"I get the feeling the Russians can easily attack us here," said one doctor, who gave her name as Lela. "Our government cannot protect us."

Georgia's fiercely pro-American president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has taken to the airwaves, calling for a cease-fire in an interview with CNN.

"We proclaim cease-fire," he said. "We are willing to sign the document on non-use of force and on non-resumption of hostilities. … We need to bring back peace and to stop this innocent, senseless, brutal, absolutely unacceptable killings."

But the Russians are furious with what they have labeled the Georgian leadership's military adventure.

In a televised address, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia would continue to be the "guarantor of stability" in the Caucasus region, as he said it has been for the last two centuries.

On Sunday, Moscow claimed one of its warships sank a Georgian gunboat in the Black Sea. Russian artillery and tanks have reportedly advanced toward the Georgian town of Gori. Overnight, Russian warplanes continued to bomb military targets around the Georgian capital.

When Russian warplanes roared several times over Tbilisi on Monday morning, one Georgian woman broke down in tears, while another picked up her Bible and began praying.

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