Georgia proposes cease fire in South Ossetia

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili proposed Saturday to declare a cease fire in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Saakashvili, speaking at a news conference Saturday, also proposed that the warring parties be separated. Georgia’s Security Council secretary, Alexander Lomaia, said Saakashvili’s proposal means that the Georgian troops will withdraw from Tskhinvali, the provincial capital of South Ossetia, and stop responding to Russian shelling. The Russian military said previously they already had driven Georgian forces out of Tskhinvali.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below….

GORI, Georgia (AP) — Fighting raged in South Ossetia for a second day Saturday as Russia sent hundreds of tanks and troops into the separatist province and dropped bombs on Georgia that left scores of civilians dead or wounded.

Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, launched a major offensive Friday to retake control of breakaway South Ossetia. Russia, which has close ties to the province and posts peacekeepers there, responded by sending in armed convoys and military combat aircraft.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that some 1,500 people have been killed, with the death toll rising Saturday.

The figure could not be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the fighting said hundreds of civilians had probably died. They said most of the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, was in ruins, with bodies lying everywhere.

Television footage showed burned-out Georgian tanks as sporadic fighting continued overnight and into Saturday.

The fighting threatened to ignite a wider war between Russia and Georgia, which accused Russia of bombing its towns, ports and air bases. Georgia, a former Soviet republic with ambitions of joining NATO, has asked the international community to help end what it called Russian aggression.

It also likely will increase tensions between Moscow and Washington, which Lavrov said should bear part of the blame for arming and training Georgian soldiers.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Saturday that Moscow sent troops into South Ossetia to force Georgia into a cease-fire. Moscow has said it needs to protect its peacekeepers and civilians in South Ossetia, most of whom have been given Russian passports. Ethnic Ossetians live in the breakaway Georgian province and in the neighboring Russian province of North Ossetia.

Russian military aircraft on Saturday raided the Georgian town of Gori. An AP reporter who visited shortly after the bombing 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.

The Russian planes appeared to have targeted a military base in Gori’s outskirts that sustained hits. They also apparently hit nearby living quarters.

Georgia said it has shot down 10 Russian planes, including four brought down Saturday, according to Kakha Lomaya, head of Georgia’s Security Council.

The first Russian confirmation that its planes had been shot down came Saturday from Russian Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the General Staff, who said two Russian planes were downed. He did not say where or when.

Overnight, Russian warplanes bombed the Vaziani military base on the outskirts of the Georgian capital and near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said. He also said two other military bases were hit, and that warplanes bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizable oil shipment facility.

The bombings caused significant casualties and damage but further details were not yet available, he said.

Lavrov said Georgia had brought the air strikes on itself by bombing civilians and Russian peacekeepers. He warned that the small Caucasus country should expect more attacks.

“Whatever side is used to bomb civilians and the positions of peacekeepers, this side is not safe and they should know this,” Lavrov said.

The Russian bombings have targeted Georgian areas outside of South Ossetia. Asked whether Russia could bomb the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, Lavrov answered: “I don’t think the bombing is coming from Tbilisi, but whatever part of Georgia is used for this aggression is not safe.”

Diplomats have issued a flurry of statements calling on both sides to halt the fighting and called for another emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, its second since early Friday morning seeking to prevent an all-out war.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Russia to halt aircraft and missile attacks and withdraw combat forces from Georgian territory. Rice said in a statement that the United States wants Russia to respect Georgian sovereignty and agree to international mediation.

There were conflicting claims as to who held the battlefield advantage.

Russian Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev said in televised comments that Russian troops have driven Georgian forces out of the capital of South Ossetia and are pushing them out of the area.

Georgian officials dismiss the Russian claims and insist they are still in control of Tskhinvali.

Eyewitnesses said that separatist and Russian forces seemed to be in control of Tskhinvali center, with no Georgian troops visible Saturday morning. Horrified civilians crawled out of the basements into the streets as fighting eased, looking for supplies.

The air and artillery bombardment left the city without water, food, electricity and gas.

Russian military commanders, who accused Georgian forces of deliberately attacking Russian peacekeepers with heavy weapons, said 15 peacekeepers have been killed and about 150 wounded.

Russian military spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov alleged that Georgian troops had killed some wounded Russian peacekeepers when they seized Russian checkpoints. Konashenkov’s claim couldn’t be independently confirmed.

It was unclear what might persuade either side to stop shooting. Both claim the battle started after the other side violated a cease-fire that had been declared just hours earlier after a week of sporadic clashes.

Washington was sending in its top Caucasus envoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, to try to end the bloodshed.

It was the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. Russian troops went in as peacekeepers but Georgia alleges they now back the separatists.

Russia, which has granted citizenship to most of the region’s residents, appeared to lay much of the responsibility for ending the fighting on Washington.

Georgia, which borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership — a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its influence in the region.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, long has pledged to restore Tbilisi’s rule over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia. Both regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and have built up ties with Moscow.

Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq, making it the third-largest contributor to coalition forces after the U.S. and Britain. But Saakashvili has called them home in the face of the South Ossetia fighting. The Georgian commander of the brigade in Iraq said Saturday they would leave as soon as transport can be arranged.

Associated Press writers Douglas Birch and Musa Sadulayev on the Russian-Georgian border, and Vladimir Isachenkov and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.

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