United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has condemned Russian military operations in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, saying the action reminds her of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. She spoke in Georgia where the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared that his country would never surrender despite Moscow's military might. Stefan Bos reports for VOA from the Georgian town of Zestaponi, which is feeling the impact of ongoing fighting.
In one of her strongest statements to date, Rice condemned what some have described as Russia's first foreign invasion since the Cold War ended.
Georgia says Russia now controls one-third of the country, three days after Moscow accepted a European Union-brokered cease-fire. Speaking after talks with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tblisi, Rice said "Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once."
She stressed that Moscow should realize that "this is no longer 1968," when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia and ended a period of reforms known as the Prague Spring.
Rice said she no longer trusts Russian peacekeepers who have been present in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"In order to stabilize the situation in Georgia, we need international observers on the scene fast. And eventually we need a more robust and impartial international peacekeeping force that would follow those monitors. I count on Russian cooperation in getting those monitors in," she said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made clear however that the world in his words "can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity." Georgian President Saakashvili responded that his country will never give up territory, including the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which seek closer ties with Russia.
"Never Georgia will succumb to their pressures. Never ever we will surrender. Never ever we will give up our freedom and independence. Never ever we will give any piece of our territory. And freedom will go to every part of Georgia, to every ethnic group to every community in Georgia and we will definitely get rid of this invaders for good. I am totally convinced of that one," he said.
Yet the tensions have underscored problems to reach a lasting fragile cease-fire, including on the road to Gori, one of the main flashpoints in recent days.
In Zestaponi, the last main town near Gori, Georgian security forces have blocked the road.
The Georgians told VOA News that Russian forces still control part of the road and accuse the Russians of attacking positions in and around Gori. The clashes have cut people off from their families. They are desperately waiting for the police blockade to be over.
Foreigners are also caught in the cross fire, including Erich F. Heckmann, a German who says he wants to return home from a rare reunion with his Georgian wife's family. "We came from the Black Sea to reach our airplane in Armenia. So we are now (in trouble). I have to do my job at home. My wife has to do her job at home. That's why I called the German embassy. But he refused (to help me). All (traffic) is stopped. And I said: "I don't want to die here, and stay. I can't," he said.
Russian and South Ossetia officials say some two-thousand people have died in the conflict, but that figure has been difficult to verify independently. The United Nations refugee agency says about 100,000 people have fled the fighting.