Russian troops sit on an amoured vehicle in the South Ossetian settlement of Dzhava August 10, 2008. (REUTERS/Said Tsarnayev )

Russians push past separatist area to assault central Georgia

This article was reported by Andrew E. Kramer, Anne Barnard and C. J. Chivers, and written by Barnard.

TBILISI, Georgia — Russia expanded its attacks on Georgia on Sunday, moving tanks and troops through the separatist enclave of South Ossetia and advancing toward the city of Gori in central Georgia, in its first direct assault on a Georgian city with ground forces during three days of heavy fighting, Georgian officials said.

The maneuver — along with bombing of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi — seemed to suggest that Russia's aims in the conflict had gone beyond securing the pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to weakening the armed forces of Georgia, a former Soviet republic and an ally of the United States whose Western leanings have long irritated the Kremlin.

Russia's moves, which came after Georgia offered a cease-fire and said it had pulled its troops out of South Ossetia, caused widespread international alarm and anger and set the stage for an intense diplomatic confrontation with the United States.

Two senior Western officials said that it was unclear whether Russia intended a full invasion of Georgia, but that its aims could go as far as destroying its armed forces or overthrowing Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

"They seem to have gone beyond the logical stopping point," one senior Western diplomat said, speaking anonymously under normal diplomatic protocol.

The escalation of fighting raised tensions between Russia and its former cold war foes to their highest level in decades. President George W. Bush has promoted Georgia as a bastion of democracy, helped strengthen its military and urged that NATO admit the country to membership. Georgia serves as a major conduit for oil flowing from Russia and Central Asia to the West.

But Russia, emboldened by windfall profits from oil exports, is showing a resolve to reassert its dominance in a region it has always considered its "near abroad."

The military action, which has involved air, naval and missile attacks, is the largest engagement by Russian forces outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia also escalated its assault Sunday on despite strong diplomatic warnings from Bush and European leaders, underscoring the limits of Western influence over Russia at a time when the rest of Europe depends heavily on Russia for natural gas and the United States needs Moscow's cooperation if it hopes to curtail what it sees as a nuclear weapons threat from Iran.

President George W. Bush, in Beijing for the Olympics, strongly criticized the Russian attacks, especially outside South Ossetia, and urged an immediate ceasefire.

In an interview on NBC on Monday morning, he said he had been "very firm" with both Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and its president, Dmitri Medvedev.

Earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney intensified the administration's warnings to Russia. In a telephone conversation with the Georgian president, he said "that Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community," a spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, said in a statement released by the White House.

Russian officials say Georgia provoked the assault by attacking South Ossetia last week, causing heavy civilian casualties. But Western diplomats and military officials said they worried that Russia's decision to extend the fighting and open a second front in Abkhazia indicated that it had sought to use a relatively low-level conflict in a conflict-prone part of the Caucasus region to extend its influence over a much broader area.

There was heavy fighting on Sunday on two fronts. Russian artillery shells slammed the city of Gori, a major military installation and transportation hub in Georgia. In the separatist region of Abkhazia, Russian paratroopers and their Abkhaz allies battled Georgian special forces and tried to cross the boundary into undisputed Georgian territory, Georgian officials said.

Russia dropped a bomb on Tbilisi's international airport shortly before Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France, who was sent by the European Union to try to mediate, was due to land, Georgian officials said. It twice bombed an aviation factory on the outskirts of the capital. Russia's Black Sea Fleet patrolled the coast of Abkhazia, and its Defense Ministry said Russian warships had sunk a Georgian gunboat that fired on them.

The Kremlin declined to say whether its troops had entered Georgia proper but said all its actions were intended to strike at Georgian military forces that had fired on its peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia.

A senior Russian military official, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said early Sunday that Russia did not intend to "break into" Georgian territory.

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