The UN Security Council put off until Saturday efforts to agree on a call for an immediate ceasefire in the worsening conflict in Georgia's breakaway enclave of South Ossetia, its president said Friday.
"Some members need more time," Belgium's UN envoy Jan Grauls, who chairs the council this month, told reporters. "Negotiations will be resumed tomorrow."
Georgian and Russian forces are engaged in open fighting for the control of Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region. Russian tanks reached Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, on Friday afternoon.
The Russian offensive follows Georgia’s decision to send in government troops to South Ossetia overnight Thursday, in order to restore its rule over the region.
Tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia grew out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgia accuses Moscow of planning to annex South Ossetia.
Georgian President Mikhaïl Saakashvili accused Russia of launching a large-scale military operation against the country. "Russia is fighting a war with us in our own territory," he said in a television interview with CNN.
The conflict's escalation can be attributed to two factors, says FRANCE 24's international affairs editor Robert Parsons."The two key issues here are Moscow’s fury at growing Western support for Georgia to join NATO, and Western recognition earlier this year for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia."
Georgia said it had shot down five Russian jets and that Russian aircraft had attacked a military base near Tbilisi. Russia did not confirm it.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared Friday that Georgia’s “aggressive actions” exposed it to a “response” from Russia.
Fighting rages in Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali
Most of Friday’s fighting has focused on Tskhinvali, with Georgia trying to maintain control of the Ossetian capital city against the advance of Russian troops.
South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoity said hundreds of civilians have been killed Friday in fighting, the Russian Interfax news agency reported. There is no independent report of casualties.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called for a "humanitarian corridor" to be opened in South Ossetia to allow ambulances to evacuate the wounded.
International community probes Moscow's intentions
The situation worsened over the past few months, after Moscow’s decision to establish closer relations with Ossetian leaders. Moscow sought to make its presence felt in the province by posting peacekeeping soldiers there and delivering economic aid and Russian passports to local residents.
But for President Saakashvili, the crisis isn't just a regional one. "If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital," he warned in a television address.
US President George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, who are both attending the Olympics opening ceremony, reportedly met briefly.
The US State department issued a statement in support of Georgia's territorial integrity and called for an immediate ceasefire. Georgia reportedly asked the US military to help bring back home half of its troops currently stationned in Iraq.
The United States and the European Union will be sending a joint delegation to the region, a European diplomatic source said Friday.
The UN Security Council is expected to resume emergency talks on Friday night. A first round of discussions was interrupted early on Friday after council members failed to agree on a Russian statement that would have called on Georgian troops and their separatist foes to renounce the use of force.
“Neither country would benefit from open war”
In an interview with France 24, Russia specialist Laure Delcour said neither Russia nor Georgia would gain much from an open war.
“Neither country would benefit from it,” Delcour says. “The entire region of the Caucuses would be destabilized, and Russia doesn’t want conflict in the region ahead of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sotchi, a few kilometers from the Abkhazian border. As for Georgia, it risks jeopardizing its membership bid to NATO.”
NATO’s secretary general Japp de Hoop Scheffer asked belligerents to immediately cease all violence and open talks.