Russia expanded its bombing blitz today against Georgia, targeting the country’s capital for the first time.
Heavy Russian shelling forced Georgian troops to pull out of the capital of the contested province of South Ossetia.
Russian jets, which have been roaming Georgia’s skies since Friday, bombed a factory on the eastern outskirts of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi that builds Su-25 jets warplanes.
The attack inflicted some damage to the plant’s runways but caused no casualties, said Georgia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili.
Georgia’s Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said the Georgian troops had to move out of Tskhinvali, the provincial capital of separatist South Ossetia, because of heavy Russian fire.
“Russia further escalated its aggression overnight, using weapons on unprecedented scale. In these conditions our forces conducted redeployment,” Lomaia said.
Georgia, whose troops have been trained by American soldiers, began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia on Friday, launching heavy rocket and artillery fire and air strikes that pounded Tskhinvali.
In response, Russia, which has granted passports to most South Ossetians, began overwhelming bombing and shelling attacks against Georgia and Georgian troops.
The Georgian president proposed a ceasefire yesterday but 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.
The UN Security Council planned to meet today for the fourth time in four days to try to resolved the situation.
US President George Bush called for an end to the Russian bombings and an immediate halt to the fighting, accusing Russia of using the issue of South Ossetia to bomb other regions in Georgia.
“The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia. They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis,” Bush said in a statement to reporters while attending the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili called it an “unprovoked brutal Russian invasion”.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meeting 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 fulfil South Ossetians’ wish to be absorbed into Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Georgia brought the airstrikes upon itself by bombing civilians and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.
“Whatever side is used to bomb civilians and the positions of peacekeepers, this side is not safe and they should know this,” Lavrov said.
Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
Today, Russia has approximately 30 times more people than Georgia and 240 times the area.
Both South Ossetia and the province of Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s, and have built up close Moscow ties.
Abkhazian separatists declared “full mobilisation” today, aiming to separate from Georgia as well.
Russian bombing raids on Georgia have focused on oil facilities and factories - aiming to use just a few days of conflict to inflict long-term damage. Georgia has deeply angered Russia by wanting to join Nato.
Russian jets raided several Georgian air bases and bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizeable oil shipment facility.
The Russian warplanes also struck near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which carries Caspian crude to the West, but no supply interruptions have been reported.
A Russian raid yesterday on Gori near South Ossetia apparently targeted a military base on the town’s outskirts but killed numerous civilians.
The Georgian government said in a statement today that 6,000 Russian troops have rolled into South Ossetia from neighbouring Russian province of North Ossetia and another 4,000 landed in another breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia. The Russian military wouldn’t comment on the number of troops sent into Georgia.
Russia also has sent a naval squadron to blockade Georgia’s Black Sea coast, the Interfax news agency reported. A Russian Navy spokesman refused to comment on the report.
Lomaia, the Georgian security chief, confirmed that Russia has imposed what he called an “illegal blockade” on Georgia and turned back several ships with humanitarian supplies.
Lavrov told reporters yesterday that some 1,500 people had been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, with the death toll rising. The figures could not be independently confirmed.
But Tskhinvali residents who survived the Georgian bombardment by hiding in basements and later fled the city estimated that hundreds of civilians had died. They said bodies were lying everywhere.
Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said the country was “in a state of war” and accused Russia of beginning a “massive military aggression.” The Georgian parliament approved a state of martial law, mobilising reservists and ordering government authorities to work round-the-clock.
Georgia said it has shot down 10 Russian planes and claimed to have captured two Russian pilots, who were shown on Georgian television. Russia confirmed that two Russian planes had been shot down, but did not say where or when.
The risk of the conflict setting off a wider war also increased when Russian-supported separatists in another Georgia’s breakaway region, Abkhazia, launched air and artillery strikes on Georgian troops to drive them out of a small part of the province they control.
In Abkhazia, the separatist government declared mobilisation and said it intended to push Georgian forces out of the Kodori Gorge, whose northern part is the only area of Abkhazia that has remained under Georgian control.
Lomaia said Georgian administrative buildings and two villages in the Kodori Gorge were bombed by Russians.
Separatist Abkhazia forces also were concentrating on the border with Georgia’s Zugdidi region. Russia’s NTV television reported that additional Russian troops had landed in Abkhazia today, heading in the same direction.
Lomaia said Russians also raided a Georgian military facility in the Zugdidi region just south of Abkhazia, inflicting no casualties.