Georgians leave S. Ossetia, vow truce

Georgian president rallies for int'l support to resist an "unprovoked brutal Russian invasion."

russian tanks 224 88 (photo credit: Sky News)
russian tanks 224 88
(photo credit: Sky News)
Georgia pulled its embattled troops out of the disputed province of South Ossetia and agreed to a cease-fire Sunday, submitting to Russia's far superior firepower, as international envoys headed in to try to end fighting between Russia and its tiny US-allied neighbor. The retreat came after Russia expanded its bombing blitz early Sunday, targeting Georgia's capital for the first time and driving Georgian troops out of South Ossetia's provincial capital of Tskhinvali with heavy shelling. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili issued a cease-fire order, the Foreign Ministry said. Saakashvili also rallied for international support to resist what he called an "unprovoked brutal Russian invasion." "Georgia expresses its readiness to immediately start negotiations with the Russian Federation on a cease-fire and termination of hostilities," the ministry said in a statement, adding that it had notified Russia's envoy to Tbilisi. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed receiving the note but insisted Georgian troops weren't observing the cease-fire pledge yet, the Interfax news agency reported. Russia said it wants Georgia to first pull its troops from South Ossetia and sign a pledge not to use force against the breakaway province. But Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that Moscow needed to verify the Georgian claims of withdrawal. "We must check all that. We don't trust the Georgian side," he said. Georgia wouldn't say where its troops redeployed. The region is a patchwork of separatist- and government-controlled areas. The UN Security Council began talks Sunday for the fourth time in four days to try to resolve the situation. Karasin said more than 2,000 people had been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, most of them Ossetians with Russian passports. The figures could not be independently confirmed. Georgia, whose troops have been trained by American soldiers, began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia overnight Friday, launching heavy rocket and artillery fire and air strikes that pounded Tskhinvali. In response, Russia launched overwhelming artillery shelling and air attacks on Georgian troops. Russia also expanded its bombing blitz Sunday against Georgia, targeting an aircraft-making plant on the outskirts of Tbilisi, the capital. "We heard a plane go over and then a big explosion," said Malkhaz Chachanidze, an artist who lives next to factory. "It woke us up, everything shook." Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Both South Ossetia and another separatist province, Abkhazia, have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s. Both separatist provinces have close ties with Moscow, while Georgia has deeply angered Russia by wanting to join NATO. Georgia's Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said the Georgian troops had to move out of South Ossetia because of heavy Russian shelling. "Russia further escalated its aggression overnight, using weapons on unprecedented scale," Lomaia said. Lomaia said the Georgians hoped the pullout would be the first step toward a truce. "We communicated that message beforehand to the Russians through (US Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice," he said. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the hostilities in South Ossetia "massacres," hours before he and Finnish counterpart Alexander Stubb were scheduled to travel to Tbilisi for a meeting with Saakashvili. Kouchner said he would deliver a "message of peace" to Georgia and Russia, and call on both countries "to stop the fighting immediately." Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meeting Saturday with South Ossetia refugees who had fled across the border to the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, described Georgia's actions as "complete genocide." Putin also said Georgia had lost the right to rule the breakaway province - an indication Moscow could be ready to absorb the province. US President George W. Bush has called for an end to the Russian bombings and an immediate halt to the fighting, accusing Russia of using the issue to bomb other regions in Georgia. Jim Jeffrey, Bush's deputy national security adviser, warned Sunday that "if the disproportionate and dangerous escalation on the Russian side continues, that this will have a significant long-term impact on US-Russian relations." Russian jets raided several Georgian air bases and bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizable oil shipment facility. The Russian warplanes also struck near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which carries Caspian crude to the West. Russian officials said they were targeting Georgian communications and lines of supply. But a Russian raid Saturday on Gori near South Ossetia, which apparently targeted a military base on the town's outskirts, also killed many civilians. Tskhinvali residents who survived the Georgian bombardment overnight Friday by hiding in basements and later fled the city estimated that hundreds of civilians had died. Georgia said it has shot down 10 Russian planes, but Russia acknowledged only two. The Georgian government said Sunday that 6,000 Russian troops have rolled into South Ossetia from the neighboring Russian province of North Ossetia and 4,000 more landed in Abkhazia. The Russian military wouldn't comment on troop movements. Russia also sent a naval squadron to blockade Georgia's Black Sea coast. Ukraine, where the ships were based, warned Russia in response that it has the right to bar the ships from coming back to port because of their mission. Both Ukraine and Georgia have sought to free themselves of Russia's influence, and to integrate into the West and join NATO. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Russia violated Georgia's territorial integrity in South Ossetia and employed a "disproportionate use of force." Adding to Georgia's woes, Russian-supported separatists in Abkhazia launched air and artillery strikes on Georgian troops to drive them out of a small part of the province they control. Abkhazia's separatist government called out the army and reservists on Sunday and declared it would push Georgian forces out of the northern part of the Kodori Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian control. Separatist Abkhazia forces also were concentrating on the border near Georgia's Zugdidi region.