Russia pounds Georgia

The violent conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia escalates into a full-fledged war.

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The violent conflict between Russian and Georgia over South Ossetia escalated into a full-fledged war yesterday after Moscow bombed key cities and oil facilities in response to an attempt by the smaller nation to wrest back control of its breakaway republic. The conflict threatens the fragile peace in the wider volatile region, and potentially affects oil supplies to the West and Georgia's relationship with Nato.

Both sides reported the deaths of many civilians, although the tolls conflicted and could not be verified. After a week of skirmishes with separatist militias, Georgian forces began an offensive on Thursday night to seize control of South Ossetia, which broke away in a civil war in the early 1990s and has since sought closer links with Russia. The Russian army responded by sending in troops, tanks and jets, and yesterday the might of its military appeared to be gaining the upper hand as the death toll mounted and Georgia called for a ceasefire.

The international community was left scrambling to find a solution to the crisis. Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, declared yesterday afternoon that the country was in a "state of war". "Russia has launched a full scale military invasion of Georgia," said Mr Saakashvili, a nationalist who rose to prominence in the Rose Revolution of 2003. Last night, Mr Saakashvili urged Russia to stop the "madness".

Russian war planes launched strikes into South Ossetia yesterday with heavy bombardments of Tskhinvali, the provincial capital, and the Black Sea port of Poti, site of an oil refinery. Russia struck a major oil pipeline in Gori, the Georgian city closest to South Ossetia, which is in north-central Georgia in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains. Disputes over the number of casualties continued. Moscow said the death toll had reached 1,500 with up to 30,000 people fleeing the region. Tbilisi said 150 Georgians had been killed, including 40 civilians, and hundreds more injured, while the military claimed it had shot down 10 Russian jets and destroyed 30 tanks.

Abkhazia, a pro-Russian enclave in the north-west of Georgia, said its forces had begun an operation to drive out Georgian forces, possibly opening a second front against Tbilisi. Georgia called for a ceasefire and hinted it may ask for international military support. It also planned to pull its 2,000-strong military contingent from Iraq within the next three days to support the mission back home.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president, said his country had launched a military operation "to force the Georgian side into peace". He said a pull-out of Georgian troops from the conflict zone was the only solution and no talks to end the conflict could begin until the troops were gone. Russia's military response to the crisis intensified a long-running stand-off between Russia and the pro-western Georgian leadership that has sparked alarm in the West with fears that the conflict could spread throughout the Caucasus.

The head of Europe's main security and human rights group said the international community needed to act together to prevent an all-out war. "We need to pull back from the brink," said Alexander Stubb, the Finnish foreign minister who is the chairman of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has a mandate to promote talks between the parties involved in the conflict. "War would have a devastating impact for the entire region," said Mr Stubb, adding there was no quick end in sight to fighting in South Ossetia. "We can always hope, but a ceasefire looks at the moment, at least in the short term, very unlikely."

The incursion has sparked an outcry from the international community as concern rose about global repercussions. George W Bush, the president of Georgia's main western ally, said attacks by Russia marked a "dangerous escalation" of the crisis. "I'm deeply concerned about the situation in Georgia," Mr Bush said at a press conference in Beijing. He said Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected and "we call for an end to the Russian bombings".

He said the attacks threatened peace in the region and that Georgia, a former Soviet state that now wants to join Nato, was a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected. Nato, however, said it was staying out of the discussions. "Nato hasn't got a direct role in the conflict in the Caucasus," said Carmen Romero, a Nato spokesman. "We don't have a mandate to negotiate or mediate."

The UN Security Council was due to meet again today to agree on a call for an immediate ceasefire after talks failed on Friday. Poland called for an emergency EU summit. "The secretary general expresses his serious concern about the mounting violence in South Ossetia. He urges the parties to refrain from any action that could further escalate the situation and threaten the stability of the region," said a statement from the office of Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general.

Some analysts suspect Russia was waiting for an opportunity to pounce. Svante Cornell, a co-director of the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, said Russia had seized upon a moment to assert itself in South Ossetia. "Irrespective of who triggered this recent action, the general direction of Russian policy is clear, which is: we are taking control of these territories, and we're not even pretending that we're not."

The fighting risked igniting a renewed and sustained conflict in the Caucasus region, an important conduit for the flow of oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets and an area where conflict has flared for years along Russia's borders, most recently in Chechnya. Yesterday, a Georgian minister said Russia's striking of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was an attack on western interests. The armed conflict between Russia and Georgia also dealt a blow to US aspirations of bringing the former Soviet republic into Nato's orbit and securing an emerging energy corridor linking central Asia to Europe.

With no short-term solution in sight fears are growing that the war could endure for months. Pavel Felgenhauer, a security analyst, said there could be a large invasion by Russia. "Massive Russian intervention would mean it's going to be a long war, a bloody war, with an unpredictable outcome, because Ossetia is geographically separated from Russia. "It's a hell of a logistical nightmare to try and take and keep South Ossetia against a rather fine Georgian military."

* Additional reporting by James Reinl, Reuters and Agence France-Presse