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Georgia-Russia Crisis Deepens, Diplomats Rush to Urge Cease-fire

BY Admin  August 11, 2008 at 12:45 PM EDT

Convoy of Russian tanks in South Ossetia; AP photo

A Georgian official said midday Monday that Russian forces had captured the cental Georgian town of Gori, located some 37 miles from Tiblisi — but a Reuters reporter saw no sign of troops in the largely deserted town.

Russia’s Defence Ministry quickly denied the Georgian claim that Russian troops had occupied Gori. “There are no Russian troops in Gori,” a ministry spokesman said, according to news wires.

The latest reports indicate that some Russian troops have crossed Georgia’s borders from the separatist province of Abkhazia while most Georgian forces are locked up in fighting around South Ossetia, the Associated Press reported.

Officials in South Ossetia said Georgian forces had renewed shelling of their region Monday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.

“Georgian forces renewed intense shelling of towns in South Ossetia, using various forms of weaponry, including heavy weapons,” Interfax quoted Irina Gagloyeva, a spokeswoman for the region’s authorities, as saying, according to Reuters.

Georgia, meanwhile, says dozens of Russian bombers have attacked targets inside its borders, including around the capital of Tbilisi and the city of Gori.

The New York Times reported that Russia expanded its attacks on Georgia on Sunday, advancing toward the city of Gori in central Georgia as part of a wider campaign that could expand the conflict beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia and into Georgia itself.

Russia originally had some 3,000 troops stationed as peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia under a ceasefire agreement brokered in the early 1990s, when the two regions rejected Georgian rule, according to Reuters.

The Russian-Georgian conflict ignited Thursday after a Georgian military operation to regain control of the Russian-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia led to direct confrontations with Russian troops.

Georgia appeared to withdraw from the region over the weekend and Georgian leaders sought a cease-fire and peace talks on Sunday — but Moscow quickly responded that Georgia was not halting its military operations, putting hopes of a cease-fire on hold.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told reporters on a conference call Monday that Russian planes had bombed targets across Georgia, including roads and bridges, the Times reported.

But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, while accusing Georgia of “genocide” in South Ossetia, also said Russian troops were now in control of South Ossetia’s capital of Tskhinvali and Moscow’s military push was “largely complete,” the BBC reported.

A senior Russian general, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told reporters in Moscow at a daily briefing Monday that Russia was not intending “to invade Georgia,” but that leaving troops inside South Ossetia was key to the current military operation, according to the Washington Post.

Nogovitsyn also denied Georgian claims that it had bombed Georgian oil pipelines, including a pivotal export route to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

“We are not bombing oil pipelines,” Nogovitsyn told the press conference.

Widely varying reports of casualties have been impossible for news agencies in the region to verify. Russia claims more than 2,000 people have been killed in the fighting and thousands more made homeless as people in the region flee the violence.

Georgia also accused Russia of using computer hackers to wage “cyber warfare” on Georgian government Web sites.

“A cyber warfare campaign by Russia is seriously disrupting many Georgian websites, including that of the Foreign Affairs Ministry,” the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who traveled to Georgia on a peace mission, called for the fighting to halt.

Kouchner, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency in the European Union, met with Georgia’s Saakashvili as part of a diplomatic effort to end the conflict. He was expected to go to Moscow late Monday.

President Bush, speaking in Beijing on his final day at the Olympics, said he had expressed grave concern to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about “unacceptable violence” in Georgia, Reuters reported.

Putin, however, criticized the U.S. Monday for agreeing to airlift some 2,000 Georgian troops back to Georgia from Iraq after they were recalled to assist with security efforts back home.

“It is a shame that some of our partners are not helping us but, essentially, are hindering us,” Putin said during comments shown on state television, according to the AP. “I mean … the transfer by the United States of a Georgian contingent in Iraq with military transport planes practically to the conflict zone … The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing.”

Putin, a former Russian president, said Russia would take its peacekeeping mission in South Ossetia to a “logical conclusion.”

Meanwhile, foreign ministers from top industrial nations urged Russia Monday to agree to an immediate cease-fire with Georgia, the U.S. State Department said.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said foreign ministers from the United States, Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Britain and Canada — the so-called Group of Seven nations — held a conference call Monday to discuss the crisis in Georgia.

“What they wanted to see was an immediate cease-fire and see a mediation effort put in place to resolve the conflict,” Wood told reporters, according to Reuters.

The State Department said the ministers also reaffirmed their support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia and urged Russia to respect this.