M. Continuo

U.S. tells Russia to halt Georgia conflict

By Matt Robinson

TBILISI (Reuters) - Russia's armed forces held on to theirpositions in Georgia on Tuesday after U.S. President George W.Bush demanded Moscow end hostilities and accused the Kremlin oftrying to topple Georgia's leadership.

Moscow has snubbed Western pleas for a ceasefire, andRussian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, taking a leading role inthe crisis, criticised Washington for casting Georgians as thevictims rather than aggressors in the conflict.

Georgia and Russia came into direct conflict over SouthOssetia last week after Tbilisi launched an offensive to regaincontrol over the pro-Moscow breakaway separatist region.

Abkhazia, another Russian-backed rebel region, launched anoffensive early on Tuesday to force Georgian troops out of thedisputed Kodori gorge, Russia's Interfax news agency reported,but gave no other details.

Georgia called for a U.N. peacekeeping force to interveneto halt its conflict with Russia, and said its battered forceshad retreated to defend the capital Tbilisi.

Speaking in Washington, Bush said it appeared Russia soughtto overthrow the elected government of Georgian PresidentMikheil Saakashvili.

"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.

He said a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of Russia's pushinto Georgia would jeopardise relations with the West.

Russia says Georgia caused the crisis and has accused it of"ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" in South Ossetia.

"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.

Saakashvili said Moscow should know 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's acting head of its embassy in London said therewas a need for international troops to get involved:

"Let it be a U.N-mandated international force, ideally EU,"Giorgi Badridze told Reuters in an interview late on Monday.

CEASEFIRE RESOLUTION

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.

CONVOY HEADS FOR TBILISI

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, Adrian Croftin London, Margarita Antidze in Gori, Louis Charbonneau at theUnited Nations, and the Washington bureau; writing by KristinRoberts and Maria Golovnina; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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

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