RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Fierce fighting continues today between Russia and its neighbor Georgia. And Georgia says it was under heavy air attack last night. Moscow says three Russian soldiers were killed by Georgia's shelling. The conflict began last Thursday after the Georgians tried to retake a breakaway region called South Ossetia. Russia supports the Ossetians, and Russia mounted a massive military response. The Georgians were forced to withdraw and call for a ceasefire.
NPR's Ivan Watson reports from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
IVAN WATSON: Georgian troops were on the retreat from South Ossetia yesterday, less than three days after they stormed into the breakaway region backed by rocket fire and Georgian airstrikes.
(Soundbite of artillery fire)
WATSON: On Sunday, the boom of artillery echoed in the distance as dozens of Georgian soldiers withdrew on foot through a deserted Georgian border village, just hours after the troops had abandoned South Ossetia.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: Russian warplanes bombed us all night on Saturday, says this Georgian soldier. We were forced to withdraw because we're powerless against the airplanes. If the Americans or the Europeans don't help us, he added, Georgia and the rest of the Caucuses will go to Russia.
The Georgians attacked South Ossetia in an effort to regain control of a region which broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. The South Ossetian separatists have been strongly backed by Russia ever since.
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WATSON: But with the Georgian army now in retreat, thousands of ethnic Georgians have been fleeing South Ossetia and bordering villages, packing cars and buses with belongings and even herding their cattle to safety.
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WATSON: The Russians have spread panic among the Georgian population by carrying out airstrikes deep inside Georgian territory. So far, most of the targets have been military, with several deadly exceptions.
I'm walking through the rubble of a five-story apartment building, one of three in the Georgian town of Gori which were hit by Russian airstrikes on Saturday morning. The force of the explosion ripped off walls, knocked down balconies, shattered windows and burned several ambulances that were parked in the parking lot here. Some residents are now filtering back to try to collect some of their belongings that may have survived the force of these airstrikes.
Other residents weren't so lucky.
Ms. EVEMA TAVELIDZE: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: After the apartment airstrikes, Evema Tavelidze spent the next 24 hours searching for her missing husband, Andrei. Yesterday, she sat weeping outside a hospital in Gori after she finally discovered her husband's body in the town morgue.
Inside the hospital, doctors said at least 15 people were killed in the apartment airstrikes and scores more wounded. Meanwhile, fresh casualties continued to arrive from the fighting around South Ossetia.
Daveed Arabashvili lay in a hospital bed wearing bloody bandages over shrapnel wounds to his head, stomach and shoulder.
Mr. DAVEED ARABASHVILI: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: He started to explain that he was hit by an explosion yesterday while standing outside his house in a village near South Ossetia, but then he doubled over, vomiting. The doctors here said they were terrified that Russian troops and tanks would advance from nearby South Ossetia and attack Gori.
Ms. LELA (Doctor): (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: I get the feeling the Russians can easily attack us here, said this doctor, who gave her name as Lela. Our government cannot protect us.
Georgia's fiercely pro-American president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has taken to the airwaves, calling for a cease-fire in this interview with CNN.
President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): We proclaim cease-fire. We are willing to sign the document on non-use of force and on non-resumption of hostilities. We need to bring back peace and to stop these innocent, senseless, brutal, absolutely unacceptable killings.
WATSON: But the Russians are furious with what they have labeled as the Georgian leadership's military adventure. In a televised address, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said Russia would continue to be the, quote, "guarantor of stability" in the Caucasus region, as he said it has been for the last two centuries.
Yesterday, Moscow claimed one of its warships sank a Georgian gunboat in the Black Sea. Russian artillery and tanks have reportedly advanced towards the Georgian town of Gori, and overnight Russian warplanes continued to bomb military targets around the Georgian capital.
When Russian warplanes roared several times over Tbilisi this morning, one Georgian woman broke down in tears, while another woman picked up her Bible and began praying.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Tbilisi.