Russia moves into Georgian territory as conflict worsens

TBILISI (AFP) — Russian troops launched attacks deeper into Georgian territory on Monday, prompting Tbilisi to retrench its troops closer to the capital as US President George W. Bush blasted Moscow's actions as "unacceptable".

Russian forces moved briefly into the west Georgian city of Senaki to prevent Georgian troops from regrouping for attacks on the breakaway region of South Ossetia -- the cause of the worsening conflict -- the Russian defence ministry was quoted by domestic news agencies as saying.

The Russian troops later withdrew from Senaki, Russian and Georgian officials said, with Tbilisi saying its military base there has been destroyed.

"Russian forces have destroyed Senaki military base and have left it," a spokesman for the Georgian interior ministry, Shota Utiashvili, told AFP.

Georgia initially claimed Russian soldiers had occupied Gori, the main town close to Moscow-backed South Ossetia, but this was denied by Russia's defence ministry, though most of Gori's inhabitants had fled leaving it a ghost town.

But the secretary of Georgia's security council, Alexander Lomaia, told AFP later: "The Russians are staying near Gori. They did not enter the city itself."

Russian forces entered Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti on Monday, Georgian and Russian officials said, but Moscow described it as a reconnaissance mission.

Russia sent thousands of troops, tanks and air support into South Ossetia on Friday after Georgia launched an offensive to seize control of the province, which broke from Georgia in the early 1990s.

There were growing international calls for a halt to the fighting which has left hundreds reported dead and driven tens of thousands out of their homes.

US President Bush, Georgia's staunchest ally, said Russia has undermined its global credentials.

"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," Bush said, slamming the "dramatic and brutal escalation" in fighting.

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an address to the nation that "the majority of Georgia's territory is occupied."

Georgian armed forces were moved back to Mtskheta, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Tbilisi to defend the capital.

The UN refugee agency said earlier that 80 percent of the 50,000 population of Gori had fled because of Russian attacks.

At least seven Georgian soldiers were injured in an attack on a military convoy leaving Gori, according to an AFP photographer.

An armoured personnel carrier exploded about three kilometres (two miles) from Gori. The remains of two tanks, an armoured personnel carrier and two civilian cars were seen on the road to Tbilisi.

A Russian military spokesman said 9,000 troops and more than 350 armoured vehicles would be deployed inside the second Georgian separatist region of Abhkazia.

The Georgian foreign ministry said more than 50 Russian warplanes had flown over Georgian territory. "Tbilisi was bombed. Bombs hit the village of Kojori and Makhata mountain," it said.

Meanwhile, the South Ossetian separatist government said Georgia had resumed an artillery bombardment of its capital, Tskhinvali, where residents reported many deaths.

Russia's military acknowledged it had lost 18 soldiers and four planes in the conflict but gave no details of its latest operations. It has said 2,000 people have been killed in South Ossetia -- a figure Georgia disputes.

Saakashvili told foreign reporters several hundred Russian servicemen had been killed and 18 or 19 Russian aircraft shot down.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finland's Alexander Stubb were to put a peace plan to Russian leaders on Tuesday, having persuaded Georgia's president to sign up to the European Union plan, a senior Georgian official told AFP.

The EU plan calls for a ceasefire, medical help for victims , the withdrawal of troops on both sides and eventual talks.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU presidency, will go to Moscow and Georgia on Tuesday to confer with his counterparts, his office said.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov dismissed the EU efforts however. A "ceasefire agreement is signed by two sides when they meet," he told CNN television, adding that Georgia must make an accord first with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The UN Security Council on Monday kicked off fresh talks on draft text calling for an immediate truce in the Russia-Georgia conflict, agreed by US and European diplomats after several days of discord.

Diplomatic tensions between Russia and the United States held up efforts by the UN Security Council to call for an end to the fighting.

Moscow has launched its own diplomatic campaign. In Brussels, Russia's ambassador to NATO called on the alliance to hold an extraordinary Russia-NATO council Tuesday before taking any decision on Georgia.