(AFP) – Aug 8, 2008
MEGVREKISI, Georgia (AFP) — A Russian army convoy entered South Ossetia on Friday and Russian planes attacked a Georgian military base, reports said, after Georgian forces pounded the capital of the breakaway province and warned of "war" if Russia intervened.
Amid spiralling tensions, Moscow threatened retaliation after Russian forces in the beleaguered city of Tskhinvali were reported killed in a night-time Georgian artillery and air barrage.
Dozens of Russian tanks and military vehicles headed for the four-kilometre (2.5 mile) Roki tunnel, which leads into South Ossetia , an AFP reporter at the frontier said.
Russia's three main news agencies said a convoy had crossed into South Ossetia.
"We cannot allow the deaths of our countrymen to go unpunished. The guilty parties will receive the punishment they deserve," Russia President Dmitry Medvedev said earlier.
Georgia's National Security Council warned however that there would be "a state of war" between the two countries if the Russian military convoy entered the rebel region, which gets strong backing from Moscow.
Russian aircraft meanwhile launched an attack on a military base near Tbilisi, Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told AFP.
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili warned of "large-scale military intervention" and ordered a mass mobilisation.
He said his country's operation had been successful and "most of South Ossetia's territory is liberated and is controlled by Georgia."
Georgia's Foreign Minister Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili told the BBC that Tbilisi was appealing to world leaders to press Moscow to stop "direct military aggression" on its territory, .
South Ossetia broke from Georgia in the early 1990s and has since been a constant source of friction between Georgia and Russia. The Georgian government accuses Moscow of wanting to take over South Ossetia.
At least 15 civilians were killed in the fighting and Georgian shelling and air raids on Tskhinvali, South Ossetian officials said.
A Georgian officer said there were also wounded and dead among the Georgian military but declined to give figures.
The Russian military said Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali had been killed when Georgian shells hit their barracks, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called for a "humanitarian corridor" to be opened in South Ossetia to allow ambulances to evacuate the wounded.
"Ambulances cannot move, hospitals are reported to be overflowing, surgery is taking place in corridors," a spokeswoman told journalists in Geneva.
People are sheltering in their basements with no electricity or access to communications, she added.
"This morning, a UNHCR staff member reported that many buildings and houses have been destroyed and that only military personnel are moving on the streets," spokesman Ron Redmond said.
"Water is also in short supply -- a chronic problem, worsened by recent events -- most transport has stopped and shops are running out of food," he added.
"As a result of the hours-long shelling of Tskhinvali by heavy weaponry, the city is almost totally destroyed," General Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of Russian peacekeeping forces, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava told Rustavi-2 television that Georgia would declare a three-hour ceasefire to let people leave the conflict zone.
During the night, an AFP reporter saw Georgian forces fire over a dozen missiles towards South Ossetia from a position in Georgia and witnessed helicopters and hundreds of soldiers in trucks moving towards the region.
The reporter also saw two planes firing at targets near Tsinkhvali.
Georgian officials said Russian aircraft had entered Georgian airspace twice and bombed the cities of Gori and Kareli, while Georgia's Rustavi-2 television reported a Russian plane had been shot down in South Ossetia.
In Moscow, a foreign ministry spokesman denied that Russian aircraft were attacking Georgia and said no plane had been shot down, telling AFP the allegations were "rubbish."
The United States called for "an immediate end to the violence," adding to calls from the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for a ceasefire in South Ossetia.
But the United Nations failed to agree on a Russian statement urging Georgia and the rebels to halt the fighting.
Vladimir Putin, the former Russian president and now its influential prime minister, condemned Georgia's "aggressive actions" and said his country would have to retaliate.
"They have in effect begun hostilities using tanks and artillery," Putin said in Beijing where he attended the Olympics opening ceremony. "It is sad, but this will provoke retaliatory measures."
Putin said he had discussed the crisis with Chinese leaders and with US President George W. Bush. "Everybody agrees -- nobody wants to see a war."
He said Russian volunteers were ready to fight in South Ossetia and that it would be difficult to hold them back, according to his spokesman.
Russia called a special meeting of the UN Security Council which expressed concern over the fighting but could not agree on a Russian statement urging the warring sides to renounce the use of force.
In recent months, Moscow and Tbilisi have sparred repeatedly over South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia.
Georgia's pro-Western government accuses Moscow of seeking to annex the two regions and derail its efforts to join the transatlantic NATO alliance, which Russia vehemently opposes.
The Georgian offensive came within just hours of reports that Georgian and South Ossetian officials agreed to meet Friday for talks and the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by the Georgian president.
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