Russian planes renew attacks on South Ossetia

Posted on 2:38 AM by Sameer Shah

Russian jets have launched new attacks on towns in Georgia after fighting continued through the night in South Ossetia.

The two countries are close to full scale war after Russian tanks invaded the tiny territory in response to Georgian attacks on Moscow-backed separatists.

South Ossetian rebels said that 1,600 people have been killed so far in the fighting and other reports suggested that 30,000 have fled their homes.

Foreign journalists witnessed an air attack on the town of Gori early on Saturday morning and the Georgian government claimed Russian bombers had "completely devastated" the Black Sea port of Poti - a key transit route near a major gas pipeline.

Last night Russia had reportedly started to bomb civil and economic infrastructure, including the Black Sea port of Poti and the military base at Senaki. Between 8 and 11 Russian jets reportedly hit container tanks and a shipbuilding plant at the port.

Moscow has announced it will send reinforcements into South Ossetia and President Dmitry Medvedev has pledged to "force the Georgian side to peace".

"Our peacekeepeers and reinforcement units are currently running an operation," he said at a meeting with the defence minister. "They are also responsible for protecting the population. That's what we are doing now,"

Colonel Igor Konashenkov, a Russian infantry officer, said units of the 58th army had arrived in Tskhinvali overnight and would seek to "establish peace".

Additional "special units" would arrive "in the next few hours", he said.

Columns of Russian tanks plunged the two neighbours into war as they filed into South Ossetia yesterday, marking the Kremlin's first military assault on foreign soil since the Soviet Union's Afghanistan intevention, which ended in 1989.

South Ossetia won de-facto independence in a war which ended in 1992 but has been a source of tension ever since, along with Abkhazia, another separatist region.

Russian peacekeepers have suffered 15 dead and 150 wounded, the peacekeeping forces were quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

"Now our peacekeepers are waging a fierce battle with regular forces from the Georgian army in the southern region of Tskhinvali," a representative of the Russian force was quoted as saying by Interfax.

"I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars," said Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, who had fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia.

"It's impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged."

The confrontation between the two countries deepened in April when Nato promised that Georgia would be allowed to join - although no clear timetable was offered.

The European Union was last night trying to secure a ceasefire in the pro-Russian enclave. The United States and the EU sent a joint delegation to the region in a bid to halt the fighting, while Nato called for an immediate end to the clashes and for direct talks between Russia and Georgia.

Any ceasefire would be unlikely to hold. Hours after President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, a devoutly pro-Western leader, declared a unilateral ceasefire on Thursday night, his forces began an artillery barrage against Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.

The fighting broke out as much of the world's attention was focused on the start of the Olympic Games. Many leaders, including Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President George W Bush, were in Beijing watching the opening ceremony.

Mr Putin declared: "War has started." Victor Dolidze, Georgia's ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said: "If this is not war, then I wonder what it is."

Mr Dolidze told the OSCE's permanent council in Vienna that Russian forces had been bombing Georgian territory since the morning, according to a diplomat who attended the 45-minute meeting.

Vladimir Voronkov, Russia's representative, told the assembly that "the true story is very different." He accused the Georgian side of launching a massive attack in defiance of diplomatic efforts.

As the roar of warplanes and the explosion of heavy shells sounded outside Tskhinvali, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused the Georgians of driving people from their homes.

"We are receiving reports that a policy of ethnic cleansing was being conducted in villages in South Ossetia, the number of refugees is climbing, the panic is growing, people are trying to save their lives," he said in televised remarks from the ministry.

Georgia, which would be hugely outnumbered in an all-out confrontation with Russia, said that it had control of the capital, but there were reports of Russian tanks on the outskirts and that Georgian forces had started to retreat.

Georgia will withdraw 1,000 soldiers from its military contingent of around 2,000 troops in Iraq to help in the fighting against South Ossetian separatist rebels, a top Georgian official said.

Georgia has asked the US military to provide aircraft to move all Georgian troops home from Iraq as fighting rages in South Ossetia, a US military official said Friday.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia.

"The United States calls for an immediate ceasefire to the armed conflict in Georgia's region of South Ossetia," Rice said in a statement.

"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," she said.

The United States is working actively with its European allies to launch international mediation to end the crisis and senior US officials have spoken with the parties in the conflict, she added.

A spokesman for EU foreign police chief Javier Solana: "We repeat our message to all parties to immediately stop the violence."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the US was sending an envoy to the region "to engage with the parties in the conflict".

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