Russia and Georgia tonight declared themselves ready to make peace in the battle over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
The UN Security Council met for the fourth time today in as many days trying to resolve a conflict that began when US-allied Georgia tried to control South Ossetia, then said its troops had retreated in the face of Russia’s tanks and aircraft.
Council members broke off their three-hour meeting with plans to return either later tonight or tomorrow.
The US was preparing a draft resolution that would have the council call for an immediate ceasefire and condemn the Russian action. France also had a draft text in the making.
The US and Europeans planned to confer amongst themselves tonight.
Russia, which called the first meeting on Thursday night hours before its tanks rumbled into Georgia, will only act in “self-defence” said Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin.
“Let’s state clearly that we are ready to put an end to the war, that we will withdraw from South Ossetia, that we will sign an agreement on non-use of force,” Churkin proposed.
However, diplomats said major fighting continued in many areas. Russia has also deployed a naval squadron off the coast of Abkhazia, and its aircraft bombed the outskirts of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said its soldiers were observing a ceasefire on orders of the president and notified Russia’s envoy to Tbilisi.
“They’re ready for immediate talks with the Russian Federation,” said UN Under-secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynne Pascoe during a briefing to the Security Council.
He said Georgia’s “humanitarian corridor” for civilians, refugees and troops would help facilitate the negotiations.
But Georgia’s ambassador, Irakli Alasania, said it was “Russia’s intention to erase Georgian statehood, to exterminate Georgian people”.
Churkin, meanwhile, accused Georgia of waging “genocide” against South Ossetians.
Churkin also accused the UN secretary-general’s office of taking Georgia’s side.
Responding to those remarks, British Deputy Ambassador Karen Pierce defended UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office as impartial.
“An attack on the Secretariat is an attack on the institution,” she said. “It does it no credit.”
Ban’s office had said late last night that he was “alarmed by the escalation of hostilities in Georgia” and also “profoundly concerned over mounting tensions in the Abkhaz zone of conflict, including the bombing of the Upper Kodori Valley and the ongoing military build-up along the security zone”.
He also declared that “all armed contingents which are not authorised by respective agreements on South Ossetia should leave the zone of conflict” and all sides must respect the “territorial integrity” of UN members, including Georgia.
Pierce questioned why Russia was not willing to agree to an immediate ceasefire, and called on Russia to use its influence in Abkhazia to control forces seeking to widen the conflict.
Much of the session, which began this morning with private talks and a public session, became a tense stand off between major powers Russia and the US, which backs its ally Georgia. Georgia also has been trying to become a full Nato member, angering Russia.
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad exchanged sharp remarks with Churkin and accused Russia of resisting attempts to make peace. Khalilzad pointedly asked Churkin whether Russia’s aim was to “change the leadership in Georgia” – a charge Churkin did not directly address but seemed to deny.
“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.”
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 today’s private talks, UN officials said.
“The time has come for us all to show our responsibility and to end a deteriorating process,” said French Deputy Ambassador Jean-Pierre Lacroix, whose nation holds the European Union presidency for the rest of this year.