Russian strategic bombers and jet fighter planes pounded targets in many parts of Georgia on Saturday, hitting apartment buildings and economic installations as well as military targets in an escalating war that is killing more and more civilians and confounding international efforts to secure a cease-fire.
Russia continued to pour troops and tanks into South Ossetia, the breakaway region of Georgia that triggered the conflict, to confront Georgian forces that are attempting to reclaim the region. Both sides claimed control of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, where sporadic gunfire and shelling continued Saturday.
“Nobody really controls anything,” said a senior U.S. official, noting the continuing fighting.
Civilians on both sides of the conflict fled homes, sometimes leaving behind devastation and bodies buried in rubble. Russia said that 2,000 people had been killed in South Ossetia and that more than 30,000 refugees had crossed into Russia.
Georgian officials said 130 people were killed on its side of the unofficial border with South Ossetia, including at least 30 civilians who died Saturday when bombs from Russian planes struck two apartment buildings in this city. An Associated Press reporter who visited Gori shortly afterward saw several apartment buildings in ruins, some still on fire, and scores of dead bodies and bloodied civilians. The elderly, women and children were among the victims. Russian military commanders also said 15 peacekeepers have been killed and about 150 wounded
None of the casualty figures could be independently confirmed.
Rhetoric on both sides escalated Saturday, with each side claiming it wanted peace and a cease-fire but neither showing signs of backing down. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Georgia of “genocide.” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking to a small group of foreign reporters, vowed that Georgia would “resist until the end.”
The Russians “want to get rid of us,” he said. “They want to make regime change. And they want to get rid of any democratic movement in this part of their neighborhood. That's it, period.”
President Bush and other Western leaders repeated calls for a cease-fire, their comments increasingly leavened with criticism of Russia's intensifying operation. Georgian hopes of pledges of help were disappointed.
“The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia,” said Bush, who was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympics but spoke to Saakashvili by phone Saturday afternoon. “They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis.”
Alexander Stubb, the Finnish foreign minister and chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, noted that Russia, which has had peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia for years, could no longer be considered a mediator. “Russia is at the moment a party in this conflict,” Stubb said. Speaking in Helsinki on Saturday, he expressed little hope for a quick solution. Asked about the chances of a cease-fire and negotiations, he said: “On a scale of one to 10, we are at about two.”
The French government, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, urged Russia to accept a Georgian call for a cease-fire. The French presidency “underlines that the pursuit of military action would affect its relationship with Russia,” a statement said. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is due to visit the region Sunday.
Despite those efforts, combat continued for a second day Saturday and appeared to widen to other fronts. Separatists in Abkhazia, another section of Georgia seeking independence or integration into Russia, began shelling Georgian positions in the upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia controlled by the government in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.
Saakashvili said Russian planes struck the Black Sea port of Poti, attempted to hit but missed a pipeline carrying Caspian Sea oil to Turkey, and bombed railway stations, among other nonmilitary targets. Doctors working in Gori said that Russian planes had struck two military field hospitals.
Saakashvili said Georgia had shot down 10 Russian SU-27 fighter jets (Russia has confirmed losing two). He accused Russia of attempting to sow panic among the population by targeting apartment buildings in Gori and homes in nearby villages.
“Russia is behaving like a rogue state,” he said.
Georgia has mobilized its reserves and is calling home 2,000 troops serving in Iraq for the fight against Russia.
“There is panic in Tbilisi,” said a senior U.S. official, briefing in Washington, D.C. He said Russia is using TU-22 supersonic strategic bombers that can carry up to 54,000 pounds of bombs and cruise missiles. He also said that Russia has launched ballistic missiles against targets in Georgia.
Russian officials were adamant Saturday that they were striking only targets associated with what they described as Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia, an area patrolled since the early 1990s by Russian peacekeepers.
Putin flew to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia in Russia, where most of the South Ossetian refugees from the fighting have fled.
“We urge the Georgian authorities to immediately stop their aggression against South Ossetia, to stop all violations of all standing agreements on a cease-fire and to respect the legal rights and interests of other people,” Putin said. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of encouraging Georgia to carry out “ethnic cleansing” in South Ossetia.
The desire of the leadership in both Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO has infuriated the Kremlin, which regards any further expansion of the Western military alliance as a threat.
“Georgia's aspiration to join NATO … is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures,” Putin said in Vladikavkaz.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Bush in a telephone call that there would be no talks with Tbilisi until Georgian troops withdraw from the conflict zone.
Ossetians are an ethnic group separate from the country's dominant Georgians. Both are Christian, but each has its own language, culture and sense of history.
South Ossetia waged a war in the early 1990s to secure quasi-independence from Georgia. South Ossetian and Georgian forces have since skirmished along an unofficial border. On Thursday, there were artillery exchanges.
The parties disagree over who began the escalation. Saakashvili said he ordered his forces in only after Russian troops crossed into South Ossetia in large numbers.
But Russia claims that Georgia escalated the standoff by crossing the unrecognized frontier in an effort to regain control of the disputed territory. Russian officials said that a blistering assault on Tskhinvali devastated the city, killed hundreds of civilians and sparked the Russian response.