Russian troops entered Georgia's breakaway province South Ossetia as violence broke out between Georgian troops and Russia-backed separatists, putting the region on the brink of an all-out war. Leaders had been scheduled to begin a round of negotiations, but instead, an overnight attack led by Georgian troops altered those plans. Georgian leaders say they launched their attack in response to Russian forces entering the region. Emma Stickgold in Moscow has this report for VOA.
Violent clashes are not uncommon in Georgia's breakaway province, South Ossetia, since it won de-facto independence in a war ending in 1992. But the latest round of explosions and gunfire that broke out in the region was the worst outbreak of hostilities in well over a decade.
Georgian forces launched an attack with the Georgian government declaring that it intended to "restore constitutional order" in the breakaway region. South Ossetian officials say at least 15 civilians were killed and more than 20 were injured in the fighting. In addition, Russian Defense officials say 10 Russian peacekeepers were killed in the battles.
Georgian officials said their troops had liberated the region, after surrounding the capital Tskinvali but South Ossetian separatists deny that claim. Russia's Defense Ministry says it sent troops into South Ossetia to back up the peacekeepers in the region and Georgian officials charge Russian tanks have entered the area.
In remarks on Friday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili called on Russia to stop the air attacks on Georgian cities, and announced a full military mobilization, adding that reservists were being called into action.
Mr. Saakashvii said that a widespread military aggression had been waged against Georgia, charging Russia with bombing peaceful villages. He said Georgia did not initiate the confrontation, but said the country will hold on to its territory. He called on all Georgians to arm themselves, yet not to be afraid.
From the Olympic games in Bejing, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said it was Georgia who was the aggressor in this situation.
Putin said the Georgian government acted extremely aggressively, starting combat actions using heavy arms, artillery and tanks. He said such actions will trigger a response, and called for an end to the violence.
According to the Georgian Defense Ministry, Russian planes dropped four bombs near Gori, the main Georgian city near South Ossetia, although a Russian foreign ministry spokesman called the claim "nonsense."
At a demonstration outside the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, a sizable group of South Ossetian émigrés gathered to call for Russia's aid in ending the violence.
Elina Bestaiyeva, a journalist from the region, called on Russia to help, saying that death toll was already far too high.
There are deaths every day, Bestaiyeva said, and the situation has become tragic.
A humanitarian corridor was created in the afternoon to allow civilians to leave the region safely. Analysts say it is unclear how long the violence will last.