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Russian Air, Ground Forces Strike Georgia

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Russia was compelled to intervene to protect Russian citizens from attacks by Georgian forces, and that those responsible for violence would be held accountable. He said that Georgia's actions call into question "the viability of Georgia as a state, their viability as a responsible member of the world community."

The two sides have long skirmished along the unofficial border between Georgia and South Ossetia, where Russia has maintained a force of soldiers who are officially peacekeepers, but who Georgians see as allies of the separatists. Georgian officials said their offensive was triggered early Friday after separatists continued to shell Georgian villages following the announcement of a unilateral cease-fire by Saakashvili on Thursday.

Television images showed Georgian rockets firing into the night sky. Reporters in Tskhinvali said many houses were engulfed in flames, a hospital was destroyed and a university was on fire. One Russian peacekeeper told Interfax, the Russian news agency, that the city was "practically destroyed."

More than 10 Russian peacekeepers have been killed and about 30 have been wounded in Tskhinvali, Col. Igor Konashenkov, aide to the commander in chief of the Russian Ground Forces, told Interfax.

Estimates of civilian casualties from the separatist government ran as high as 1,400. South Ossetian civilians were flooding to the border with Russia, according to news reports. Russian news media said that paramilitary fighters were also streaming across the border from Russia, including from North Ossetia, a Russian republic that shares ethnic ties with the South Ossetians.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, facing his first major crisis since taking office in May, called an emergency meeting of the national security council. "We will not tolerate the death of our citizens," he said at the meeting. "Those guilty will receive due punishment." Russian state television showed a column of Russian tanks and troops on the move and said that the force was already inside South Ossetia.

Georgian officials said that Russian aircraft were striking strategic Georgian positions far beyond South Ossetia. By their account, attacks occurred at the Black Sea port of Poti, Marneuli air base, another air base in Bolnisi and the Vaziani military installation about 15 miles from the capital. The foreign ministry said several Georgian military aircraft were destroyed at Marneuli.

Russia denied that its aircraft were involved in hostilities, as well as a claim by Saakashvili that Georgian forces had shot down two Russian jet fighters.

In Tbilisi, a large radio and TV tower was blacked out early Saturday morning for fear of attack. Tbilisi's airport and the state chancellery, as well as two government ministries, were evacuated as a precaution, according to Temur Yakobashvili, the minister for reintegration.

In an interview, Yakobashvili said: "Russia has to stop harassing its neighbors and attacking its neighbors. . . . And if not, the next will be Ukraine, next the Baltic states, and then we will be back in the Soviet Union."

Staff writers William Branigin and Karen DeYoung in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Joyce Barrett in Tbilisi contributed to this report.


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