Mass exodus: More than 50,000 flee as Russia ignores Georgia's calls for ceasefire

Posted on 1:00 PM by Sameer Shah

U.S. President George W. Bush said Russian attacks on Georgia marked a "dangerous escalation" of the crisis and urged Moscow to halt the bombing immediately.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Bush the only solution was for Georgian troops to quit the conflict zone.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin however defended Russia's incursion.

"Russia's actions in South Ossetia are totally legitimate," he said in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, near to the separatist Georgian region.

Putin also accused Georgia of seeking "bloody adventures" and trying to drag other countries into a military conflict.

"Georgia's aspiration to join NATO ... is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures," he said during a meeting in the Russian city of

Georgia called for a ceasefire on Saturday after Russian bombers widened an offensive to force back Georgian troops seeking control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The call seemed to fall on deaf ears, with Russia's leaders saying Moscow's actions were legitimate and that the only way to end the conflict was for Georgia to pull back from the region.

Russia said it had seized the rebel capital, Tskhinvali, but Georgia denied the claim on the second day of fighting that also threatens oil and gas pipelines seen as crucial in the West.

Russian officials said the death toll now stood at 2,000 and 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia had fled over the border to Russia over the past 36 hours.

Russia's military action dramatically intensified its long-running stand-off with the pro-Western Georgian leadership that has sparked alarm in the West and led to angry exchanges at the United Nations reminiscent of the Cold War.

Abkhazia, another pro-Russian enclave in Georgia, said its forces had begun an operation to drive out Georgian forces, possibly opening a second front against Tbilisi.

Bush, Saakashvili's main ally in the West, said Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected.

"The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia. They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis," said Bush, who is attending the Olympics in Beijing.

In a telephone call with Bush, Medvedev "stressed that the only way out of the tragic crisis provoked by the Georgian leadership is a withdrawal by Tbilisi of its armed formations from the conflict zone," a Kremlin statement said.

Russian officials said there could be no talks until Georgian forces pulled back.

At least 1,500 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in heavy fighting.

Overnight, two Russian planes were shot down and 12 of its soldiers were killed - along with more civilians who perished during fighting in Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Russian officials today said that 30,000 refugees have fled to Russia during the last 36 hours and a further 34,000 South Ossetian refugees have been registered so far in North Ossetia.

Fighter jets carried out up to five raids on mostly military targets around the Georgian town of Gori - close to the conflict zone in South Ossetia - but at least one bomb is thought to have hit an apartment killing five civilians, according to reports.

The Foreign Office today upgraded its travel advice to urge against all but essential travel to Georgia, as country heads for all-out war with Russia.

Up a small flight of steps in a nearby courtyard, a young man, bare-chested and kneeling on the ground, cradled the head of his brother in his lap. Shaking off hands offered in comfort from neighbours, he moaned in agony and begged - in ever more frantic tones - for his brother to live.

Still wailing, he was hauled away from the body by Georgian troops who bundled the corpse into the back of a Lada. His face streaked in his brother's blood, the man raced to keep up with the car, his hand repeatedly pawing the rear window.

Slowly, his legs buckling beneath him, he began to fall behind. Giving up the chase, he knelt unmoving in the middle of the road, his face staring in the direction of the receding car.

More dead were brought out of the buildings, among them a mother and her daughter who were laid side by side in the back of a military truck.

Those who survived stood in small groups on the road outside their shattered homes, bewilderment etched on their faces.

Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians, and insists that the offensive in Georgia is not war but a "peacekeeping mission".

Few of the people of Gori believe that. So powerful were the bombs aimed at the barracks that they shattered windows in a half-mile radius. Even if all had hit their intended target, the chances of collateral damage would have been high.

As a lone fire engine battled the inferno, with flames spreading across the roofs of two blocks of flats, this small part of Gori began to resemble another scene of Russian military retribution: Grozny.

The Chechen capital was pounded into submission in 1999 on the orders of Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, with little regard for civilian life. By the time Chechen rebels lost the city, barely a single building stood intact, forcing residents to eke out an existence in cellars and basements for six years until Moscow finally began serious reconstruction in 2006.

While the bombing of Gori has not been remotely comparable, Grozny was in the back of many peoples' minds as they took shelter.

"We know what the Russians are capable of," said Nina Kogiddze, a teacher who was flung to her kitchen floor by the force of the blast as she was brewing coffee. "Do you think that when they fight wars, they abide by civilised rules? They hate Georgians. They would be happy to kill us all."

No official death toll from the apartment bombings has been released as yet, but there can be no doubt that the casualty rates would have been much higher if most of Gori's residents had not fled the previous day, after the first Russian bombs fell.

It was fortunate, too, that the school holidays were under way.

"If classes were in progress, we would have a hundred children dead," said Givi, the headmaster of the Lyceum College, as he surveyed his devastated school.

Other Russian bombing raids in Gori killed at least two civilians in another block of flats in a nearby suburb.

On the road to Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's ramshackle capital, and the main stronghold of the Moscow-backed rebels, Russian jets maintained their bombardment, strafing Georgian artillery positions in the fields near the frontier.

The rebels, who have been reinforced by Russian tanks and ground troops, claimed to have retaken the town after intense hand-to-hand fighting. Georgia says it still controls a significant portion of Tskhinvali and claims to have shot down four Russian jets yesterday. Georgian officials showed to Western reporters the papers of one Russian pilot they claimed to have captured.

Russia also launched air strikes across Georgia's wider territory for a second day, striking an airport at Kutaisi in the west and the country's main Black Sea port of Poti.

"The Russians are now bombing civilian targets at will, including a port, an airport and a railway station where 17 people were killed," said Shota Utiashvili, an interior ministry spokesman.

Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's pro-western president, was preparing to declare martial law, a process that would involve the full mobilisation of every man of fighting age, Mr Utiashvili said.

Against the might of the million-strong Russian army, it is unclear how effective such a strategy would be. Reservists have already been drafted onto the front line, but few have any battle experience and most have had just a week's training.

When a bomb fell close to their positions, one company of new recruits scattered frantically for cover, ignoring pleas and orders from their commanders to remain in place.

"On Tuesday I was a bank clerk," one fresh-faced reservist said. "Then they woke me up in the middle of the night and gave me half-an-hour to report. I've been up on the front line and I've never been so scared in my life."

Given the challenges, it may prove difficult for Mr Saakashvili to sustain morale.

Already his tactics seem to have back-fired, analysts and diplomats say that he may have launched military actions with the intention of forcibly reclaiming South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in a short but brutal war 17 years ago. His gamble may have been that Russia would not intervene militarily.

Moscow, increasingly belligerent on the international stage and long at loggerheads with Georgia over its pro-Western policies, has given financial and military support to the rebel republic, but there have been rumours of a fall-out between the secessionist leader Eduard Kokoity and the Kremlin.

It was suggested that Russia was fed up with the tiny state, just one-and-a-half times the size of Luxembourg, that has largely sustained itself on smuggling, the counterfeiting of money and alleged pension fraud against the Russian authorities. US diplomats say that half the fake dollar bills on the American east coast are manufactured in South Ossetia.

Instead Russia was said to be concentrating its support on helping Abkhazia, another, much larger, breakaway region that has long been a popular holiday destination and has a much more advanced economy than South Ossetia's. Russian planes yesterday bombed the Kodori Gorge, a region of Abkhazia still under Georgian control, raising the prospect of the conflict spreading to a second front.

Yet from the Russian perspective, the reincorporation of South Ossetia would bring Georgian accession into NATO, a move strongly opposed by Moscow, closer. European members opposed a US push earlier this year to bring Georgia into the alliance on the grounds that the frozen conflict of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had yet to be settled.

Russia, which has repeatedly punished Georgia with economic and diplomatic sanctions for its pro-western Rose Revolution in 2003, is determined not to lose one of the last few holds it has over its querulous neighbour, analysts said.

Mr Saakashvilli may also have banked on support from his closest ally, US president George W Bush, whose administration is said to have given tacit support for a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in the believe that the territory could be recaptured within 48 hours.

But as events have unfolded differently, Washington has offered Georgia - one of the largest contributors of troops in Iraq - little more than lukewarm vocal support.

In a demonstration of the fact that Georgia could be abandoned by its chief ally, President Bush warmly embraced Mr Putin at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing on Friday.

With the West apparently unwilling to participate in a proxy war with Russia at a time when relations with Moscow are already highly strained, Georgia now faces potential isolation in its conflict with its giant neighbour.

Already the economic consequences of the war are being felt as Western specialists involved in helping Georgia develop its infrastructure began to flee.

Americans and Britons gathered in hotels in the capital Tbilisi to organise road convoys into neighbouring Armenia after Russia closed its air space and most airlines cancelled flights after a military base close to the airport was bombed on Friday.

"Its the last straw," said a British architect who was preparing to leave Georgia for good. Three days ago we were making promising progress but now two thirds of our staff have been called up and its simply too dangerous to stay in Tbilisi."

The Georgian government yesterday ordered the evacuation of the country's parliament and all official buildings amid fears that they could become new Russian targets.

By a swimming pool in one hotel, a nervous American clutching a Blackberry read out the latest advice from the US Embassy to her friends. All dependants had been ordered to evacuate and anyone in the country for "non-essential" reasons was also urged to leave.

At the news, one of her friends sank his head into his hands.

"The Georgian dream is over," he said.

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