Heavy fighting as Georgia attacks rebel region

TBILISI (AFP) — Violent clashes were underway Friday in South Ossetia as Georgia said its forces had surrounded the capital of the breakaway region.

At least 15 civilians were reported killed by South Ossetian officials as Tskhinvali came under heavy Georgian shelling.

"An attack is underway, clashes are taking place outside Tskhinvali," interior ministry spokesman Shota Utyashvili told AFP, just hours after reports that Georgia and South Ossetia agreed to meet Friday for talks.

The Georgian government has decided to "restore constitutional order" in the region which broke away from Tbilisi's control in the early 1990s, said the head of Georgian peacekeepers in the province, General Mamuka Kurashvili.

"Tskhinvali has been surrounded by Georgian forces," Georgia's Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili told AFP.

However, he emphasised that Tbilisi did not intend to "to assault Tskhinvali, but to neutralise separatist positions."

He said eight South Ossetian villages had already been captured.

"Tskhinvali is being shot at by mortar and heavy weapons from the Georgian villages of Nikozi and Ergneti and some houses are burning," Ria-Novosti news agency quoted an official speaking for South Ossetia's ministry of emergency situations as saying.

"Violent attacks are underway," South Ossetian rebel leader Eduard Kokoity told Interfax news agency, describing the attack on Tskhinvali as a "perfidious and vile" act by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

A South Ossetian government website said Georgian tanks and troops were attacking Tskhinvali.

Automatic weapons fire around Tskhinvali intensified as dawn broke, an AFP correspondent reported from a Georgian border post located some five kilometers (three miles) from the South Ossetian capital.

A large plume of smoke rose from the city, and explosions and heavy weapons continued regularly as they had all night.

Fifteen civilians have been killed by Georgian firing on Tshkinvali, according to a South Ossetian law enforcement official cited by the Interfax news agency.

Officials said earlier that up to 12 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes on Thursday.

The Georgian offensive came within just hours of reports that Georgia and South Ossetia agreed to meet Friday for talks and the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by Georgia's president.

"Let's stop this spiral of violence ... Let's resume negotiations," Saakashvili said in a televised address.

The Georgian leader also reiterated a previous offer of broad autonomy for South Ossetia, whose independence is not recognised by any other state.

Saakashvili said that Russia -- which backs the separatists -- could serve as a guarantor of South Ossetian autonomy, a new offer by Tbilisi.

Russia called Friday upon Georgia to halt its offensive upon South Ossetia and return to talks with the breakaway region.

Georgian authorities "should change their minds and return to civilised means of resolving difficult political questions," a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Boris Malakhov, said on the news channel Vesti 24.

"It is still not too late to prevent a massive bloodbath and new victims, including among civilians," he said.

Russia, which has peacekeepers deployed in South Ossetia and previously warned it won't remain on the sidelines in the event of a Georgian attempt to resolve the situation by force, intends to "continue its pursuit of efforts to prevent the spilling of blood and for the process of resolving the situation to return to peaceful means," said Malakhov.

Russia also requested the UN Security Council hold an emergency meeting late Thursday on the escalating fighting in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, diplomats at the UN headquarters in New York said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed "serious concern" about the violence, his spokeswoman said in a statement.

The United States also called for an end to the violence.

"We're urging Moscow to press South Ossetia's de facto leaders to stop firing. We're urging Tbilisi to maintain restraint," Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman, told reporters.

In recent months, Moscow and Tbilisi have sparred repeatedly over South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia.

Georgia's pro-Western government accuses Moscow of seeking to annex the two regions and derail its efforts to join the transatlantic NATO alliance, which Russia vehemently opposes.

In the latest diplomatic exchanges, Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin accused Georgia of "military preparations" while a top Georgian official said Russia was fuelling the conflict by supplying arms to the region of 70,000 people.