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Georgia, Russia fight as envoy seeks peace

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili accused Moscow of trying to overthrow his government on Monday as Russian troops pushed into two separatist regions, but Moscow said it had no intention of invading.

As fighting continued in the Caucasus crisis which has alarmed Western governments, rattled investors in Russia and shaken world oil markets, United States President George Bush accused Russia of a ”disproportionate response” and called for peace.

The simmering conflict between Russia and its small, former Soviet neighbour erupted last Thursday when Georgia suddenly sent forces to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Russian province that threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s.

Moscow responded with a counter-attack that drove Georgian forces out of the devastated South Ossetian capital Tshkhinvali on Sunday. Russia says more than 2 000 people have been killed in the fighting and thousands more are homeless but these figures have not been independently verified.

Saakashvili told reporters on a conference call that Russia ”wants to replace the government in Tbilisi” and claimed that Moscow wanted to seize control of energy routes in the region.

However, Moscow insisted it had not moved its troops beyond the territory of South Ossetia and a second separatist region, Abkhazia, and had no intention of pushing further into Georgia.

President Dmitry Medvedev said the operation to restore calm in South Ossetia was nearing its conclusion and the Russian General Staff said at a military briefing that staying within the borders of South Ossetia was a ”key principle”.

Despite international calls for peace, both sides continued to fight on Monday. Georgia shelled Tshkhinvali early in the day despite declaring a ceasefire on Sunday, and Tbilisi said Russian jets had bombed Georgian targets again overnight.

Russia said at a daily military briefing that it had lost four military aircraft and 18 soldiers since the fighting started, with another 14 missing in action and 52 wounded.

But Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn rejected out of hand Georgian claims that up to 50 Russian jets had bombed Georgia overnight.

”Fifty? Is that what they said? How do they count them at night?,” he said. ”We don’t do that. We don’t have 50 planes flying at night.”

Russian financial markets slid to their lowest levels in two years early Monday as investors panicked over the conflict, though Russian stocks later reversed Monday’s losses on Medvedev’s comments that a significant part of the military operation was over.

Oil prices rose again on Monday after a recent retreat from record levels, with crude topping $116 a barrel.

London and Washington both backed their ally Georgia, which has set its sights on Nato and EU membership. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband condemned Moscow for bombing targets ”well beyond” South Ossetia and said there was widespread concern about the escalating violence.

But Russia, angered by what it saw as an unwarranted Georgian attack on South Ossetia last week and determined to avoid Tbilisi attacking another pro-Russian separatist area, was in no mood for compromise.

Moscow issued an ultimatum to over 1 500 Georgian forces stationed in the Zugdidi district near Abkhazia, a second separatist area west of South Ossetia, to disarm or face attack but Georgia swiftly rejected the demand.

Russia said it had boosted its forces in Abkhazia beyond normal levels, stationing more than 9 000 paratroopers and 350 pieces of armour there to ”rule out a repetition of the situation Russian peacekeepers faced in Tskhinvali”.

Moscow deployed yet more armour and troops across its southern border into North Ossetia on Monday.

A Reuters reporter said T-72 tanks and Hurricane multiple rocket launchers choked the road between Russia and Tskhinvali as military convoys headed south.

Russia originally had up to 3 000 troops stationed as peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia combined under a ceasefire agreement brokered in the early 1990s, when the two regions threw off Georgian rule.

But Georgia and some Western governments say that by supporting the separatists politically and financially before last week’s clashes and now extending fighting into other parts of Georgia, Moscow has now become a party to the conflict.

Bush, speaking in Beijing on his final day at the Olympics, said he had expressed grave concern to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about ”unacceptable violence” in Georgia.

”I was very firm with Vladimir Putin,” Bush said. ”We strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia.”

Sounds of explosions rocked Tskhinvali, now controlled by Russian troops, on Monday morning. Soldiers said several Russian peacekeepers were killed in Georgian shelling.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the rotating presidency in the European Union, met Saakashvili on a mission to try to end the war. He was expected to go to Moscow on Monday evening.

After meeting Saakashvili, Kouchner said a ”controlled withdrawal of troops” was his main priority.

A Georgian government source said on Sunday 130 Georgian civilians and military personnel had been killed and 1 165 wounded, many because of Russian bombing inside Georgia. Russia denies hitting civilian targets. – Reuters

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