Sean Walker

Russia Begins Bombing Georgian Capital

Georgia's appeal for a ceasefire seemed to have fallen on deaf ears last night as Russian jets expanded their bombardment, targeting the capital, Tbilisi, for the first time. As the world's diplomats hurried to contain the violence and prevent the conflict engulfing the wider Caucasus region, Russia made clear it no longer considered Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili a partner, prompting accusations from his main ally, the United States, that Moscow was resisting peace and wanted regime change.

Russia has made no secret of its dislike for Mr Saakashvili, his alliance with Washington, his attempts to join Nato and his oft-repeated pledges to bring two separatist provinces back under Tbilisi's control -- a pledge he tried to make good on Thursday by sending troops into South Ossetia.

Last night there was strong condemnation of the Georgian leader from the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who said: "A man who issued orders to commit war crimes which resulted in thousands of deaths of peaceful civilians cannot be viewed by Russia as a partner."

Underscoring the magnitude of the problem facing Georgia, Moscow-backed separatists in its other breakaway region, Abkhazia, declared they had opened a second front. Maxim Gunjia, the separatists' deputy foreign minister, said his tiny air force was bombing Georgian positions in the highly contested Kodori Gorge and that about 1,000 troops had also been deployed. "We have started operations because we saw the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and knew Abkhazia would be next," Mr Gunjia said from the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, a town of ramshackle beach bars, palm trees and buildings gutted in a 1992-93 war of independence against Tbilisi's forces.

Georgia announced yesterday that it had pulled its troops out of South Ossetia and Mr Saakashvili said his government had been trying "all day" to contact Russia to discuss a ceasefire. "Georgia expresses its readiness to immediately start negotiations with the Russian Federation on a ceasefire and termination of hostilities," a statement said.

But Russia said it was sceptical of the Georgian claims of a withdrawal. "We must check all that. We don't trust the Georgian side," said Russia's deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin. Moscow wants Georgia to rule out using force in future.

Georgia's ceasefire came on a day of claim and counterclaim, but a day when the military might of an angry Russian bear was on full display. As well as the bombing in and around the capital, including one explosion just metres from the main runway at Tbilisi international airport, there were also reports of explosions in the western town of Zugdidi, following on from attacks on the central town of Gori overnight.

Meanwhile dozens of Russian tanks and military vehicles headed for the two-mile Roki tunnel, which leads from Russian-held North Ossetia into the separatist South.

Russia's navy also entered the conflict, deploying a flotilla off Georgia's Black Sea coast. There were reports that they would mount a blockade, snuffing out supply lines for weapons, oil and wheat -- a charge denied by Moscow. Unconfirmed reports late last night said the Russian war ships had sunk a Georgian vessel.

In the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, the human suffering in the wake of the Georgian attack and Russian counter-attack was horrifyingly evident. Corpses were dotted about the city, burnt-out tanks littered the road, and every other building showed bomb or mortar damage, with many simply smouldering ruins. Where once 10,000 people had roamed, there was barely a soul. Many residents have fled across the border into North Ossetia, and those left were the walking wounded, some heavily bandaged, others limping along on crutches.

Russian television spoke of a "humanitarian catastrophe" in South Ossetia, with more than 2,000 people dead and thousands homeless. President Dmitry Medvedev -- who has largely taken a back seat to the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who sped from Beijing to North Ossetia on Saturday -- termed the Georgian action a "genocide" and ordered officials to document the crimes.

A Georgian government source said 130 Georgian civilians and soldiers had been killed and 1,165 wounded, many by Russian bombing inside Georgia. Russia denied attacking civilian targets.

Tbilisi accused Moscow of shipping 4,000 soldiers to the port of Ochamchire in Abkhazia. Abkhaz officials insisted they were fighting on their own but warned that Russia could become involved. Amid reports of North Ossetians, Cossacks, Chechens and Dagestanis from around the Caucasus volunteering to fight in South Ossetia, Mr Gunjia said Georgia had sparked a "chain reaction" by attacking South Ossetia. "It's no longer possible to listen to Georgia talk about a peaceful solution in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, or offer us autonomy. Georgia has shown its real face."

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