M. Continuo

U.S. tells Russia to halt Georgia conflict

By Matt Robinson

TBILISI (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush toldRussia on Monday to end its armed conflict with Georgia afterMoscow's forces advanced deeper into its pro-Westernneighbour's territory, ignoring Western pleas to halt.

Bush said it appeared Moscow sought to overthrow theelected government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili,and warned a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of Russia's pushinto the smaller country would jeopardize relations with theWest.

"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state andthreatens a democratic government elected by its people. Suchan action is unacceptable in the 21st century," Bush said.

Moscow snubbed Western pleas for a ceasefire, and RussianPrime Minister Vladimir Putin, taking a leading role in thecrisis, criticized Washington for casting Georgians as thevictims rather than aggressors in the conflict.

"The Cold War has long ended but the mentality of the ColdWar has stayed firmly in the minds of several U.S. diplomats.It is a real shame," Putin said.

The fighting erupted on Thursday when Georgia sent forcesto retake South Ossetia, a pro-Russian region that threw offGeorgian rule in the 1990s and declared itself independent,albeit without international recognition.

Moscow, which supports South Ossetia's independence,responded by sending its troops into Georgia.

The conflict escalated quickly and, by Monday, Georgiaappealed for international help and said its battered forceshad retreated to defend its capital city, Tbilisi.

Shortly after Bush spoke, Saakashvili said Moscow shouldknow Georgia will not quit.

"Georgia will never surrender," he said on CNN when askedwhat he would say to Russian officials if they were watching."They should know Georgia will never surrender."


Georgia hosts a key oil pipeline supplying the West and thefighting has unsettled oil markets. It has alarmed investors inRussia and has raised fears of a wider conflagration in thevolatile region bordering Iran, Turkey and Russia.

A feeling of uneasiness pervaded Tbilisi, as for the firsttime in four nights, city streets were largely empty, with noevening demonstration by the president's supporters.

Saakashvili said Russian forces had taken control ofGeorgia's main east-west route, effectively bisecting thecountry. He urged Georgians to stay home and not panic.

"We are working with an international community, but all wegot so far are just words, statements, moral support,humanitarian aid," Saakashvili said in a televised address."But we need more -- we want them to stop this barbaricaggressor."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected in Moscow andpossibly Georgia on Tuesday for talks on behalf of the EuropeanUnion, although it was unclear what could be achieved.

At the United Nations, France planned to present aresolution to the U.N. Security Council that would call for animmediate cease-fire.

Saakashvili said earlier he had agreed to a plan proposedby French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner under whichhostilities would end, a mixed peacekeeping force would bedeployed -- replacing the purely Russian one -- and troopswould return to pre-conflict positions.

But a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition he notbe named, said the outlook was "grim" and that Russia hadplanned its moves in Georgia for some time.

"This appears to be a full invasion of Georgia with an endresult uncertain and an objective that is not clear but appearsto be aggressive in nature," said the official. "Words likeinvasion should not be used lightly but this is an invasion."

In Georgia, an emergency session of parliament was calledon Tuesday.


Russian officials have said they have no intention ofoccupying territory beyond South Ossetia and another separatistarea, Abkhazia.

But Russian forces appear to have pushed farther intoGeorgia. Bush also said there was evidence Russian forces wouldsoon begin bombing the civilian airport in the Georgiancapital.

"If these reports are accurate, these Russian actions wouldrepresent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict inGeorgia," Bush said in Washington after returning from a tripto China for the Olympic Games.

Russia says 1,600 people have been killed in the fightingand thousands are homeless but these figures are notindependently verifiable.

Women and children wept in the streets of Tskhinvali onMonday as they surveyed the destruction amid continued Georgianshelling. Russian troops distributed water and food fromtrucks.

Russia said it had lost four military aircraft and 18soldiers since the fighting started, with another 14 missing inaction and 52 wounded.

(Additional reporting by Tanya Mosolova and GuyFaulconbridge in Moscow, Dmitry Solovyov in Buron, DenisSinyakov in Tskhinvali, James Kilner in Tbilisi, MargaritaAntidze in Gori, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, andthe Washington bureau; writing by Kristin Roberts, editing byPhilip Barbara)

For special coverage seehttp://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/georgiaconflict