US: Russia must halt attacks on Georgia

NATO head speaks with Russian, Georgian officials; Germany urges sides to stop "any use of force."

russian tanks 224 88 (photo credit: Sky News)
russian tanks 224 88
(photo credit: Sky News)
The United States on Friday called on Russia to halt aircraft and missile attacks in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia and withdraw its combat forces from Georgian territory as the situation in the former Soviet state deteriorated and verged on full-scale war. The White House said US President George W. Bush had discussed the situation with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin while both leaders were in Beijing for the start of the Olympics. And US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the parties involved in hopes of ending the fighting and made plans to send a US envoy to the region. "The United States calls for an immediate ceasefire to the armed conflict in Georgia's region of South Ossetia," Rice said in a statement. "We call on Russia to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgia's territorial integrity, and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil." Rice also said Russia should respect Georgian sovereignty and agree to international mediation to end the crisis that threatens to engulf the volatile region. "We urgently seek Russia's support of these efforts," she said. Rice said she and other senior US officials had been in touch with "the parties" to the conflict but did not identify who they had spoken to. In Moscow, Russia's foreign ministry said Rice had spoken to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who told her that Georgia must be convinced to withdraw its forces from South Ossetia, it said. A US official in Washington identified the envoy as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, a specialist on the region, who will be traveling soon to Tbilisi and elsewhere with European diplomats in a bid to defuse the situation. At the Pentagon, a senior defense official said Friday that Georgian authorities have asked the United States for help getting their troops out of Iraq. Georgia has about 2,000 troops serving with the coalition forces in Iraq, making it the third-largest contributor after the United States and Britain. Defense Department officials have had some contact with Georgian authorities, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Friday, adding that the US was monitoring the situation closely. Whitman said Georgia had not requested any assistance from the US, but he would not provide details on discussions that have occurred. The EU and the NATO alliance also urged Georgia and Russia Friday to stop the fighting in South Ossetia and resolve their conflict through dialogue. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer spoke with Russian and Georgian officials several times by phone urging both sides to show restraint. He planned to continue behind-the-scenes consultations, officials said. In a brief statement, De Hoop Scheffer said he was "seriously concerned about the events that are taking place in the Georgian region of South Ossetia," adding the alliance was "closely following the situation." In private remarks, NATO officials stressed the alliance was careful not to take sides in the South Ossetia dispute. The alliance held off on convening a meeting of the NATO ambassadors - a common response to security crises. In April, Georgia - and Ukraine - failed to secure a pre-NATO membership deal because of French and German fears that giving both an inside lane to membership would only strain NATO's ties with Moscow. Relations already have been fraying over Washington's plans for a missile defense system in Europe. Moscow strenuously opposes NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine - an issue that will return to the NATO agenda in December. Both the EU and NATO expressed grave concern over Georgia's military offensive to regain control of the province. Georgia launched the attack after accusing Russia, which has close ties to South Ossetian separatists, of bombing Georgian territory. "The European Union calls for a dialogue between all parties which is the only way to a lasting solution of the crisis," according to a statement issued by France, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU. It said the EU was "deeply concerned" about the South Ossetia fighting and urged "all parties to show the greatest restraint" by immediately lowering tensions and avoiding any new escalation of violence. De Hoop Scheffer also called "on all sides for an immediate end of the armed clashes and direct talks between the parties." EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner deplored the outbreak of hostilities and the loss of lives, adding that the European Commission "stands ready to increase its contribution to conflict resolution in Georgia with confidence-building measures." Germany also urged both sides in the conflict over South Ossetia to end the fighting and calm tensions, while the country's foreign minister conferred with his Russian counterpart and Georgia's president. Chancellor Angela Merkel urged "an immediate stop to any use of force" and called on both sides to show "the greatest prudence and restraint," said her spokesman, Thomas Steg. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier issued a similar appeal after Georgian troops launched a major military offensive to regain control of South Ossetia. The Foreign Ministry said Steinmeier, who recently has tried to mediate in a long-running dispute over another breakaway Georgian province, Abkhazia, spoke by phone Friday with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In a statement, Steinmeier did not detail what was said in those talks. In addition to calming the situation on the ground, "all involved must refrain from escalating tensions further through their rhetoric and mutual accusations," he said. He urged all involved to enter a direct dialogue immediately.