US accuses Russia of resisting peace efforts

US AMBASSADOR Zalmay Khalilzad exchanged sharp remarks with the Russian ambassador yesterday, accusing Moscow of resisting attempts to make peace with Georgia after days of fighting have left hundreds of civilians dead.

Khalilzad pointedly asked Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin in the UN Security Council session whether Russia’s aim was to “change the leadership in Georgia” — a charge Churkin did not directly address but seemed to deny.

“We believe the situation has gotten a lot worse in the last 24 hours,” Khalilzad told reporters after the public debate during the council session had ended. “There is a danger here that Russia is over-reaching” by seeking regime change in Georgia.

“Regime change is purely an American invention,” Churkin replied, speaking to reporters. “He (Khalilzad) raised the issue and I think I responded quite adequately to it.”

Churkin also accused the UN secretary general’s office of taking Georgia’s side. A spokesman for Ban Ki- moon denied the claim; Ban’s office had said late Saturday night he was “alarmed by the escalation of hostilities in Georgia.”

Much of the session, which began Sunday morning with private talks and a public session, became a tense standoff between major powers Russia and the US.

It was the Security Council’s fourth meeting in as many days. Council members broke off their three- hour meeting yesterday with plans to return either later in the day or today.

Many of the council members take sides with Georgia, which is not a council member, but China and South Africa voiced some support for Russia during yesterday’s private talks, UN officials said.

Georgia’s ambassador could only join the council’s open meetings, not its private talks, and then again only by invitation.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev described Georgia’s military operations in South Ossetia as “genocide,” according to Russian news agencies. “They were on a mass scale and were directed against individuals,” they reported him as saying.

Georgian officials said Russia was yesterday bombing areas around another breakaway region, Abkhazia, where the separatist government has declared a state of war in areas populated by Georgians.

Russia’s armed forces denied plans to move into Abkhazia.

Russia puts the death toll in the conflict at 2,000, while Georgian estimates ranged from 92 to 150.

South Ossetian authorities said in a statement that overnight shelling had killed 20 and wounded 150 people in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

The general in charge of the Russian army in South Ossetia was injured by artillery fire, Interfax reported.

The conflict has forced about 40,000 people from their homes in Georgia, an International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman said.

South Ossetia has a population of about 70,000, many of whom have been granted Russian passports.

Meanwhile, around half of Georgia’s 2,000-strong contingent in Iraq returned home yesterday, military spokesmen said.

“Flights have in fact begun today and Georgian forces are redeploying,” US military press spokesman Major John Hall told AFP.

“We are supporting the Georgian military units that are in Iraq in their redeployment to Georgia so that they can support requirements there during the current security situation.”

Russian jets have raided several air bases and bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti. Warplanes also struck near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which carries crude oil through Georgia to the West.

Azerbaijan halted oil exports through the Georgian ports of Batumi and Kulevi because of the fighting, the head of the state oil company said yesterday, according to Reuters and Agence France Presse.

Earlier yesterday, before departing for Tbilisi as part of a European mediation effort, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned of a Balkan-style spiral of violence.

“We are facing an escalation of violence” that is “unacceptable at the doors of Europe”, Kouchner told Le Parisien newspaper as he prepared to leave. “This reminds me all too much of other recent conflicts that have torn our continent apart, particularly in the Balkans.”

European Union foreign ministers will hold a crisis meeting to discuss the response to conflict in the Caucasus on Wednesday in Brussels, an EU source said.

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