Russia opens new front, drives deeper into Georgia
ZUGDIDI, Georgia (AP) — Russian tanks roared deep into Georgia on Monday, launching a new western front in the conflict, and Russian planes staged air raids that sent people screaming and fleeing for cover in some towns.
The escalating warfare brought sharp words from President Bush, who pressed Moscow to accept an immediate cease-fire and pull its troops out to avert a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of violence in the former Soviet republic.
Russian forces for the first time moved well outside the two restive, pro-Russian provinces claimed by Georgia that lie at the heart of the dispute. An Associated Press reporter saw Russian troops in control of government buildings in this town just miles from the frontier and Russian troops were reported in nearby Senaki.
Georgia's president said his country had been sliced in half with the capture of a critical highway crossroads near the central city of Gori, and Russian warplanes launched new air raids across the country.
The Russian Defense Ministry, through news agencies, denied it had captured Gori and also denied any intentions to advance on the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
The western assault expanded the days-old war beyond the central breakaway region of South Ossetia, where a crackdown by Georgia last week drew a military response from Russia.
While most Georgian forces were still busy fighting there, Russian troops opened the western attack by invading from a second separatist province, Abkhazia, that occupies Georgia's coastal northwest arm.
Russian forces moved into Senaki, 20 miles inland from the Black Sea, and seized police stations in Zugdidi, just outside the southern fringe of Abkhazia. Abkhazian allies took control of the nearby village of Kurga, according to witnesses and Georgian officials.
U.N. officials B. Lynn Pascoe and Edmond Mulet in New York, speaking at an emergency Security Council meeting asked for by Georgia, also confirmed that Russian troops have driven well beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia, U.N. diplomats said on condition of anonymity because it was a closed session. They said Russian airborne troops were not meeting any resistance while taking control of Georgia's Senaki army base.
"A full military invasion of Georgia is going on," Georgian Ambassador Irakli Alasania told reporters later. "Now I think Security Council has to act."
The Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, told CNN late Monday that Russian forces were cleansing Abkhazia of ethnic Georgians.
"I directly accuse Russia of ethnic cleansing," he said. At the U.N. on Friday, each side accused the other of ethnic cleansing.
By late Monday, Russian news agencies, citing the Defense Ministry, said troops had left Senaki "after liquidating the danger," but did not give details.
The new assault came despite a claim earlier in the day by a top Russian general that Russia had no plans to enter undisputed Georgian territory.
Saakashvili earlier told a national security meeting Russia had also taken central Gori, which its on Georgia's only east-west highway, cutting off the eastern half of the nation from the western Black Sea coast.
But the news agency Interfax cited a Russian Defense Ministry official as denying Gori was captured. Attempts to reach Gori residents by telephone late Monday did not go through.
Fighting also raged Monday around Tskhinvali, the capital of the separatist province of South Ossetia.
Even as Saakashvili signed a cease-fire pledge Monday with European mediators, Russia flexed its military muscle and appeared determined to subdue the small U.S. ally, which has been pressing for NATO membership.
"The bombs that are falling on us, they have an inscription on them: This is for NATO. This is for the U.S.," Saakashvili told CNN.
Russia's massive and multi-pronged offensive has drawn wide criticism from the West, but Russia has rejected calls for a cease-fire and said it was acted to protect its citizens. Most residents of the separatist regions have Russian passports.
In Zugdidi, an AP reporter saw five or six Russian soldiers posted outside an Interior Ministry building. Several tanks and other armored vehicles were moving through the town but the streets were nearly deserted. Shops, restaurants and banks were shut down.
In the city of Gori, an AP reporter heard artillery fire and Georgian soldiers warned locals to get out because Russian tanks were approaching. Hundreds of terrified residents fled toward Tbilisi, many trying to flag down passing cars.
An AP film crew saw Georgian tanks and military vehicles speeding along the road from Gori to Tbilisi. Firing began and people ran for cover. Cars could be seen in flames along the side of the road.
Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Both provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990, and both have close ties with Moscow.
When Georgia began its offensive to regain control over South Ossetia, the Russian response was swift and overpowering — thousands of troops and tanks poured in.
Georgia had pledged a cease-fire, but it rang hollow Monday. An AP reporter saw a small group of Georgian fighters open fire on a column of Russian and Ossetian military vehicles outside Tskhinvali, triggering a 30-minute battle. The Russians later said all the Georgians were killed.
Another AP reporter was in the village of Tkviavi, 7 1/2 miles south of Tskhinvali inside undisputed Georgian territory, when a bomb from a Russian warplane struck a house. The walls of neighboring buildings fell as screaming residents ran for cover. Eighteen people were wounded.
Hundreds of Georgian troops headed north Monday along the road toward Tskhinvali, pocked with tank regiments creeping up the highway into South Ossetia. Hundreds of other soldiers traveled in trucks in the opposite direction, towing light artillery weapons.
In a statement in the Rose Garden, Bush said there was an apparent attempt by Russia to unseat the pro-Western Saakashvili. He said further Russian action would conflict with Russian assurance its actions were meant to restore peace in the pro-Russian separatist areas.
Bush and other Western leaders have also complained that Russian warplanes — buzzing over Georgia since Friday — have bombed Georgian oil sites and factories far from the conflict zone.
The world's seven largest economic powers urged Russia to accept an immediate cease-fire agree to international mediation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her colleagues from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations spoke by telephone and pledged their support for a negotiated solution to the conflict.
"I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia," Bush told NBC Sports.
Putin criticized the United States for viewing Georgia as the victim instead of the aggressor, and for airlifting Georgian troops back home from Iraq on Sunday.
"Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shiite villages," Putin said in Moscow. "And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed ten Ossetian villages at once, who ran elderly people and children with tanks, who burned civilian alive in their sheds — these leaders must be taken under protection."
The U.S. military was informing Russia about the flights from Iraq to avoid mishaps, one military official said Monday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the subject on the record.
A Defense Department spokesman said the U.S. expected to have all Georgian troops out of Iraq by day's end.
Pentagon officials said Monday that U.S. military was assessing the fighting every day to determine whether to pull the fewer than 100 remaining American trainers out of the country.
Saakashvili's cease-fire pledge had been proposed by the French and Finnish foreign ministers. The EU envoys headed to Moscow to try to persuade Russia to accept it.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he will meet Tuesday in Moscow with President Dmitri Medvedev and then travel to Tbilisi for a meeting with Saakashvili.
Saakashvili voiced concern Russia's true goal was to undermine his pro-Western government. "It's all about the independence and democracy of Georgia," he said.
The Georgian president said Russia had sent 20,000 troops and 500 tanks into Georgia. He said Russian warplanes were bombing roads and bridges, destroying radar systems and targeting Tbilisi's civilian airport. One Russian bombing raid struck the Tbilisi airport area only a half-hour before EU envoys arrived, he said.
Another hit near key Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which carries Caspian crude to the West. No supply interruptions have been reported.
At least 9,000 Russian troops and 350 armored vehicles were in Abkhazia, according to a Russian military commander.
Abkhazia's separatists declared Sunday they would push Georgian forces out of the northern part of the Kodori Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian control.
Before invading western Georgia, Russia's deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn demanded Monday that Georgia disarm its police in Zugdidi, a town just outside Abkhazia. Still he insisted "We are not planning any offensive."
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said more than 2,000 people have been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, most of them Ossetians with Russian passports. The figures could not be independently confirmed, but refugees who fled Tskhinvali over the weekend said hundreds had been killed.
Many found shelter in the Russian province of North Ossetia.
"The Georgians burned all of our homes," said one elderly woman, as she sat on a bench under a tree with three other white-haired survivors. "The Georgians say it is their land. Where is our land, then?"
Associated Press writers Chris Torchia reported from Zugdidi, Georgia; Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia; David Nowak from Gori, Georgia; Douglas Birch from Vladikavkaz, Russia; Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov and Lynn Berry from Moscow; and Pauline Jelinek from Washington.