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Fighting Between Russian, Georgian Forces Intensifies

Fierce fighting is continuing between Russian and Georgian forces in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, forcing hundreds of civilians to flee their homes.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said his troops in the area started an operation Saturday designed to force a cease-fire and protect civilians.

Hundreds of people have been reported killed in the fighting that has been intensifying around the regional capital, Tskhinvali. Some residents say parts of the city are in smoldering ruins with bodies strewn in the streets.

A Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman, Shota Utiashvili, accuses Russia of carrying out airstrikes on Georgian military bases not far from the capital of Tblisi. He also says Russian airplanes bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which is home to key oil shipping facilities.

Georgia Battles to Regain Control of Region

Georgian forces began an operation late Thursday to regain control of South Ossetia from Russia-backed separatists. Russia responded by sending its forces in.

Russia accuses Tblisi of "ethnic cleansing," and says 15 Russian peacekeepers have been killed since the fighting began. Officials say additional troops have been sent to the region.

South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoity says about 1,400 people have been killed. The New York-based human rights group, Human Rights Watch, says a Russian agency reports almost 1,000 people have sought refuge in the Russian province of North Ossetia.

People who have managed to flee the fighting say those left behind are trying to take cover in basements and underground shelters.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Friday he ordered an all-out offensive to regain control of South Ossetia. He accused Russia of waging war on Georgia.

Russia said its troops were responding to a Georgian assault to retake South Ossetia.

Fighting Spreads

Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, Irakli Alasania, told the U.N. Security Council that Russian bombers also are attacking parts of Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway region. He said Georgian government buildings in Tblisi are being evacuated.

South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, sparking fighting and the dispatch of Russian peacekeepers. Georgia accuses the peacekeepers of backing the separatists and has vowed to bring South Ossetia back under central government control.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.