Violence Escalates In Georgia

Georgia this weekend prepared for increased ground attacks as Russia sent more troops and hundreds of tanks into the breakaway province of South Ossetia on Saturday. President Bush urged Russia and Georgia Saturday morning to declare a cease fire.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Military operations continue today in the Republic of Georgia as separatist war planes bombed the Kodori Gorge. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called for an immediate ceasefire. President Bush spoke with the president and with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, urging them both to stand down. NPR's Gregory Feifer is in Moscow. He spoke today with the Georgian security adviser and the Russian foreign minister. Greg, thanks so much for being with us.

GREGORY FEIFER: My pleasure.

SIMON: And what different explanations does the weak(ph) side provide for the situation on the ground?

FEIFER: Well, the Georgian side, the Georgian national security adviser said that Russia is attacking targets around Georgia, including in the Kodori Gorge, which is a part of Georgia's second separatist region from Moscow, as well called Abkhazia. He said that Russia was bombing government buildings in the Kadori Gorge and that Georgia was preparing for a Russian ground attack.

Now, this would mark a serious escalation of the hostilities of the past two days. We've also seen pictures, television pictures from the town of Gori, which is also outside South Ossetia, inside Georgia near the capital of T'bilisi. There are pictures of burning apartment buildings, dead bodies of what appeared to be civilians, dazed and wounded civilians, as well. In South Ossetia itself, the national security adviser said that Georgia had withdrawn its forces from the capital and separatist stronghold Tskhinvali after fierce fighting there.

SIMON: We do have to kind of remind ourselves what this is all about.

FEIFER: Well, that's right, and there are diametrically opposing explanations from both sides. Russia says it is only undertaking a peacekeeping operation against Georgian aggression. And today, I've also spoke to foreign minister - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said Western countries that support Georgia are partially to blame for creating an atmosphere of impunity for Georgia to act now. Although he didn't name the United States, this is essentially a direct accusation because the United States has for years been training and equipping Georgia's military.

SIMON: Is there any suggestion that all the international calls for - I guess it's fair to say, at this point, are calls from both sides to desist having any effect?

FEIFER: So far not. Georgia says it's being invaded by Russia. It's comparing Russia's actions to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Georgia has now declared a state of war. It's appealing to the international community to mediate. The national security adviser today said Georgia may appeal for military aid. U.S. diplomats are traveling to T'bilisi to try to mediate, and President Bush in Beijing today said that Russia's actions were a dangerous escalation, and he called for an end to Russian bombing of areas outside of the separatist region of South Ossetia.

SIMON: Thanks very much. NPR's Gregory Feifer on the job for us, reporting the situation in Ossetia from Moscow. Gregory, thanks very much for being with us.

FEIFER: Thank you.

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Georgia Proposes Cease-Fire With Russia

A delegation of U.S. and European diplomats is reportedly heading to the former Soviet republic of Georgia to try to broker a truce in the escalating conflict with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili has proposed a cease-fire, while accusing Russia of seeking to destroy his country. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says Russia is trying to force the Georgian side to peace.

Georgia launched a major offensive Friday to retake control of South Ossetia. Russia, which has close ties to the province and posts peacekeepers there, responded by sending in armed convoys and military combat aircraft.

Jan Grauls of Belgium, the current president of the U.N. Security Council, says civilians are feeling the brunt of the fighting. He said the humanitarian situation is "deteriorating" and the number of casualties and refugees is quickly rising.

Hundreds of people have been reportedly killed, most of them civilians.

Russian warplanes bombed the Georgian city of Gori on Saturday, hitting at least four residential buildings. The number of casualties is unknown.

The air and artillery bombardment left South Ossetia's capital of Tskhinvali without water, food, electricity and gas. Civilians crawled out of basement hiding places into the streets as fighting eased, looking for supplies.

President Bush pressed Russia and Georgia to immediately end the fighting.

"The United States is working with our European partners to launch international mediation, and with the parties to restart their dialogue. Russia needs to support these efforts so that peace can be restored as quickly as possible," Bush said in Beijing, where he attended the opening ceremony for the Olympics.

It is the worst outbreak of hostilities in the region since the province won de facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992.

The fighting threatens to ignite a wider war between Russia and Georgia, which accused Russia of bombing its towns, ports and air bases. Georgia, a former Soviet republic with ambitions of joining NATO, has asked the international community to help end what it called Russian aggression.

Also on Saturday, the breakaway province of Abkhazia announced that it was launching a military operation against Georgian forces. Russia maintains a peacekeeping force in the pro-Moscow region on the Black Sea coast.

From NPR and wire service reports.

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