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Georgia calls for ceasefire in S. Ossetia fighting

MYT 1:02:24 AM

GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgia called for a ceasefire on Saturday after Russian bombers widened an offensive to force back Georgian troops seeking control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C) leads a meeting on humanitarian aid to Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia in Moscow August 9, 2008. (REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Pool)

U.S. President George W. Bush said Russian attacks on Georgia marked a "dangerous escalation" of the crisis and urged Moscow to halt the bombing immediately.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Bush the only solution was for Georgian troops to quit the conflict zone.

Russia said it had seized the rebel capital, Tskhinvali, but Georgia denied the claim on the second day of fighting that threatens oil and gas pipelines seen as crucial in the West.

Russian officials said the death toll now stood at 2,000 and 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia had fled to Russia over the past 36 hours. Russia said two of its warplanes had been shot down, 13 of its soldiers killed and 70 wounded.

"I call for an immediate ceasefire," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in Tbilisi. "Russia has launched a full scale military invasion of Georgia."

Russia's military response to the crisis dramatically intensified a long-running stand-off between Russia and the pro-Western Georgian leadership that has sparked alarm in the West and led to angry exchanges at the United Nations reminiscent of the Cold War.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived in North Ossetia, where tens of thousands of refugees have fled the fighting.

Abkhazia, another pro-Russian enclave in Georgia, said its forces had begun an operation to drive out Georgian forces, possibly opening a second front against Tbilisi.

Bush, Saakashvili's main ally in the West, said Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected.

"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," said Bush, who is attending the Olympics in Beijing.

In a telephone call with Bush, Medvedev "stressed that the only way out of the tragic crisis provoked by the Georgian leadership is a withdrawal by Tbilisi of its armed formations from the conflict zone," a Kremlin statement said.

Russian officials said there could be no talks until Georgian forces pulled back.

STATE OF WAR

Georgia's parliament approved a state of war across the country for the next 15 days, while Russia accused the West of contributing to the violence by supplying Georgia with arms.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic whose pro-Western government now wants membership of NATO and the European Union, had encouraged Georgia to carry out "ethnic cleansing" in South Ossetia, the Russian foreign ministry said.

Russia, which sent in tanks to back the South Ossetians, said its forces had "liberated" the enclave's capital, but Georgia said Tskhinvali was under its "complete control".

A Russian journalist said the South Ossetian capital had been badly damaged. "The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many wounded," Zaid Tsarnayev told Reuters from Tskhinvali.

Russian jets carried out up to five raids on mostly military targets around the Georgian town of Gori, close to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. At least one bomb hit an apartment block, killing 5 people.

A woman knelt in the street and screamed over the body of a dead man as the bombed apartment block burned nearby. Another old woman covered in blood stared into the distance and a man knelt by the road, his head in his hands.

In Tbilisi, people were nervous but defiant. Most supported Saakashvili but had been shocked by the Russian reaction.

"To fight Russia is crazy," said music studio owner Giga Kvenetadze, 30. "But I do support Saakashvili ... And what Russia is doing is wrong. They must stop."

Russia's ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, said at least 2,000 civilians had been killed. Georgian officials said 129 Georgias had been killed and 748 injured.

Georgia said Russian planes had targeted a vital pipeline that carries oil to the West from Asia but had missed.

Russian troops poured into South Ossetia on Friday, hours after Georgia launched a major offensive aimed at restoring control over the province.

Russia is the main backer of South Ossetian separatists and the majority of the population, who are ethnically distinct from Georgians, have been given Russian passports.

Georgia was planning to bring its Iraq contingent of 2,000 soldiers home as soon as the United States can provide transport, the commander of the unit said on Saturday.

Each side blamed the other for the outbreak of fighting in the pro-Moscow enclave, which broke from Georgia when the Soviet Union was nearing collapse in the early 1990s.

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