Georgia calls for ceasefire as death toll mounts


Georgia called for a ceasefire today after Russian bombers widened an offensive to force back Georgian troops seeking control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Russia said it had seized the rebel capital, Tskhinvali, but Georgia denied the claim on the second day of fighting that threatens oil and gas pipelines seen as crucial in the West.

"I call for an immediate ceasefire," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in Tbilisi. "Russia has launched a full-scale military invasion of Georgia."

Russian officials said the civilian death toll now stood at 2,000 and 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia had fled to Russia over the past 36 hours. Russia said two of its warplanes had been shot down and 13 of its soldiers had been killed. Georgian officials said 129 Georgians had been killed and 748 injured. 

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the violence as "genocide", Interfax quoted him as saying.

President George W. Bush said Russian attacks on Georgia outside South Ossetia marked a "dangerous escalation" of the crisis and urged Moscow to halt the bombing immediately. Mr Bush, Mr Saakashvili's main ally in the West, said Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected.

However, Russia's Nato ambassador said talks with Georgia on ending fighting in South Ossetia could only start when Georgian troops ceased fire, and withdrew to the positions they held before the conflict began. Dmitry Rogozin said there could be "no consultations" until that precondition had been met. 

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev told Mr Bush in a telephone conversation this afternoon that a pullout of Georgian troops from the South Ossetian conflict zone is the only solution to the crisis, a Kremlin pess release said. Mr Putin  also defended Russia's actions, insisting they were “totally legitimate”. 

 The French European Union presidency tonight urged Russia to accept Georgia’s offer of a ceasefire in South Ossetia.  "It (the EU presidency) demands an immediate ceasefire. It welcomes the offer of the ceasefire from Georgia and expects from Russia that it will immediately accept such a ceasefire."

The European Union was ready to contribute to any humanitarian assistance to help those who had suffered in the conflict, it said in a statement. 

Russia's military response to the crisis dramatically intensified a long-running stand-off between Russia and the pro-Western Georgian leadership that has sparked alarm in the West and led to angry exchanges at the United Nations reminiscent of the Cold War.

Abkhazia, another pro-Russian enclave in Georgia, said its forces had begun an operation to drive out Georgian forces. One report from a pro-Georgian spokesman said Russian planes had carried out bombing raids, but the Abkhaz separatists said it was their aircraft that were involved. 

Russia earlier accused the West of contributing to the violence in South Ossetia by supplying Georgia with arms. Ukraine, a former Soviet republic whose pro-Western government now aspires to membership of Nato and the European Union, had encouraged Georgia to carry out "ethnic cleansing" in South Ossetia, the Russian foreign ministry said.

Russia, which sent in tanks to back the South Ossetians, said its forces had taken the enclave's capital. Tactical groups have fully liberated Tskhinvali from the Georgian military ... " Tass quoted Russian Ground Forces commander Vladimir Boldyrev as saying.

But Georgia said it still held the city. "Tskhinvali is now under the complete control of our troops," Khakha Lomaia, the secretary of the Georgian National Security Council said in Tbilisi.

A Russian journalist said the South Ossetian capital had been badly hit. "The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many wounded," Zaid Tsarnayev said from Tskhinvali. "I was in the hospital yesterday where I saw many civilian wounded. The hospital was later destroyed by a Georgian jet. I don't know whether the wounded were still there."

Georgia said Russian planes had targeted a vital pipeline that carries oil to the West from Asia but had missed.

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, a reporter at the scene said. But he saw at least one bomb hit an apartment, killing five people.

Russian troops poured into South Ossetia yesterday, hours after Georgia launched a major offensive aimed at restoring control over the province. Russia is the main backer of South Ossetian separatists and the majority of the population, who are ethnically distinct from Georgians, have been given Russian passports.

Tbilisi accuses Russia of launching a war against it. Georgia was planning to bring its entire Iraq contingent of 2,000 soldiers home as soon as the United States can provide transport, the commander of the unit said today.

The Russian military said more reinforcements were on their way but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was not seeking all-out war with Georgia. Each side blamed the other for the outbreak of fighting in the pro-Moscow enclave, which broke from Georgia as the Soviet Union came close to collapse in the early 1990s.