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Clashes intensify in South Ossetia

Latest update : 2008-08-09

The Georgian breakaway region of Ossetia came under aerial bombardment from Russia, in what Georgia's UN Ambassador called a "full-scale military invasion." More Russian army units and reinforcements arrived overnight in the region.


Russia and its pro-West neighbour Georgia engaged in fierce fighting Saturday in the disputed region of South Ossetia, reports said, as the international community scrambled to prevent an all-out war.
Georgian forces early Saturday launched the latest in a series of artillery attacks on Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway Georgian region, a south Ossetian government spokeswoman said. Russian forces said they had counterattacked.
Fierce clashes between Russian and Georgian troops in the southern suburbs of Tskhinvali were reported by Russian news agencies during the night.
Georgia said it was under Russian aerial bombardment in what the country's UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania described as "a full-scale military invasion."
Moscow on Friday sent troops into the province to defend Russians under fire from a Georgian offensive to regain control over the province that broke away from Tbilisi's control in the early 1990s.
The United States, the European Union and the OSCE were preparing to send a joint delegation to Georgia to try to broker a ceasefire, the EU said Friday.
As fighting continued, both sides said they had the upper hand.
"Georgian forces are controlling the entire territory of South Ossetia except Java," a city north of Tskhinvali, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in a televised address on Friday.
The rebels shortly afterwards announced that they were in control of the capital Tskhinvali, Interfax news agency reported.
Saakashvili said 30 people had died on the Georgian side, but separatist leader Eduard Kokoity put the overall death toll from Friday far higher.
"Slightly more than 1,400 people have died," Kokoity said, cited by Interfax. "This information will be checked, but this is the approximate number, based on information from relatives."
Early Saturday fighting was centred on the capital Tskhinvali.
"The Georgian side is right now firing on residential parts of Tskhinvali," South Ossetian government spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva said in televised comments after nightfall.
"We responded to the last volley that hit Tskhinvali and our peacekeepers positions with a counter strike from our artillery and tanks," said Russian Ground Forces spokesman Igor Konashenkov, speaking on Russian television.
In a claim that Moscow denied, Georgia's interior ministry said five Russian aircraft had been shot down.
The Russian military said in a statement that more than 10 Russian peacekeepers had been killed in Tskhinvali as Georgian ordnance slammed into their barracks.
Other Georgian officials said that Russian planes on Friday had bombed near a military base in Vaziani, a military airport in Marneuli, the port of Poti and a railway junction and an airport in Senaki. There was no immediate reaction from Russian forces.
President Saakashvili on Saturday was preparing to declare a state of emergency, senior administration official Alexander Lomaia told AFP.
Authorities have evacuated the presidential building and other government offices in the capital Tbilisi amid fears of Russian bombardment, Lomaia said.
On the diplomatic front, the United States -- a champion of Georgia's bid to join NATO -- called for an immediate ceasefire and Russian withdrawal.
"We call on Russia to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgia's territorial integrity, and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement.
The European Union and NATO also called for a halt to hostilities.
In emergency talks in New York on Friday, the UN Security Council failed to agree a call for an immediate ceasefire as Russia and Georgia blamed each other for the conflict. Talks were due to resume Saturday.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Beijing for the start of the Olympic Games along with other world leaders including US President George W. Bush, blamed Georgia.
"They have in effect begun hostilities using tanks and artillery," said the former president, still a powerful figure in the Kremlin. "It is sad, but this will provoke retaliatory measures."
Television images showed Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and trucks rumbling towards South Ossetia -- plus Georgian ground forces hammering rebel positions with lorry-mounted rockets.
In the streets of Tskhinvali, home to an estimated 20,000 people, tanks were seen burning, and women and children ran for cover, hunched over in terror.
An AFP reporter in South Ossetia saw women, children and elderly people riding buses toward the Russian border, fleeing the fighting.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said hospitals in Tskhinvali were teeming with casualties.
"Ambulances cannot move, hospitals are reported to be overflowing, surgery is taking place in corridors," an ICRC spokeswoman said, adding inhabitants were taking shelter in basements with no electricity or phone service.
South Ossetia broke from Georgia in the early 1990s. It has since been a constant source of friction between Georgia and Russia, which opposes Tbilisi's aspirations of joining NATO and has de facto supported the separatists although not recognised their independence.
South Ossetia has long sought unification with North Ossetia, which is inhabited by the same Ossetian ethnic group but ended up across the border in Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Date created : 2008-08-09