MOSCOW — Russian tanks and artillery rumbled into the breakaway South Ossetia region of Georgia on Friday, and the abrupt escalation of the long-standing conflict there threatened to push the dueling offspring of the former Soviet Union to the brink of war.
There had been skirmishes in recent days between Georgian government soldiers and Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia, which borders Russia, but the violence exploded overnight.
Georgian forces launched missile and artillery strikes late Thursday and early Friday, followed by an advance of infantry and tank units aimed at capturing the capital of Tskhinvali, which has about 70,000 people. Television showed missiles streaking across the sky, then explosions in the distance.
Russian officials said the Georgian military attacked Russian peacekeepers in the region, killing 12 and wounding about 150, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told his security council Friday afternoon that "We will not allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished."
By that time, the parliament, a university building and the main hospital in Tskhinvali reportedly were badly damaged or ablaze, and as evening fell, Russian tanks had taken up positions near Tskhinvali.
From Beijing, where he's attending the Olympic Summer Games, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatened that "there will be a response" to Georgia's attempts to seize South Ossetia, which has a large number of Russian citizens and declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili accused Russia, in a publicly televised address, of sending fighter jets to bomb Georgian towns in South Ossetia. He activated the nation's military reserves and said that "Everyone must come to mobilization centers and fight to save our country."
In a phone interview with McClatchy, Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said she worried that war with Russia was increasingly possible.
"The Russian Federation is interested, it seems, to get involved . . . in open military aggression against the sovereign state of Georgia," Tkeshelashvili said. "If that happens, then it will be a disaster not only for Georgia but the whole region."
An escalating conflict in the Caucasus region would have serious implications. Oil and gas flow through the area from the Caspian Sea to Europe. Georgia has provoked Russian anger by allying itself with the U.S. and Western Europe, by sending 2,000 troops to help U.S. efforts in Iraq, among other things.
"There are a lot of agendas, and they all lead to war," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow.
Some 130 U.S. soldiers are in Georgia helping to train units there, the Pentagon said Friday, and the White House has strongly supported the country's application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The U.S. and its NATO allies Friday called on Russia to back down.
"The United States calls for an immediate cease-fire to the armed conflict in Georgia's region of South Ossetia," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. "We call on Russia to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgia's territorial integrity and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil."
Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rozogin, said Friday that he'd sent a note to the organization's member countries and "will caution them against continuing to further support Saakashvili," according to Interfax, a state news service.
The deputy speaker of the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, said that Russia should recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia, and send troops there "to defend Russian citizens," according to Interfax.
"It is possible to stop Saakashvili only by bombing Tbilisi," Zhirinovsky said.
Abkhazia, near Russia's border on the Black Sea, and South Ossetia have substantial populations of Russian citizens and are home to small units of Russian peacekeepers.
Russia and Georgia issued dueling accounts of the conflict Friday, which each nation blamed on the other.
Russian state media and South Ossetian officials accused Georgia of laying waste to the land and reducing Tskhinvali to ruins. South Ossetia's leader, Eduard Kokoity, told Interfax that more than 1,400 people had been killed.
Georgian officials put the casualty numbers in the dozens, and described Russian air attacks on Georgian cities and two military bases.
Russian analysts quoted on state-affiliated TV suggested that the fighting was a result of Georgia wanting to clean up its internal difficulties while the world's attention is focused on the Olympics, hoping to speed up its NATO application process.
Georgian officials painted the situation as an example of wanton Russian aggression using the South Ossetians as a proxy force to destabilize Saakashvili's administration in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
On Thursday night, Saakashvili had accused the South Ossetians of attacking Georgian police, military patrols and civilians. However, he also said that he'd ordered Georgian units not to return fire and was declaring "an immediate, unilateral cease-fire." Emergency peace talks originally were scheduled for Friday.
Tkeshelashvili, the Georgian foreign minister, said that her government did its best to maintain the cease-fire but that it wasn't possible after separatist fighters staged widespread attacks on Georgian-controlled villages Thursday night and took up fighting positions that made it clear that more aggression was on the way.
South Ossetian officials denied that version of events, saying that the cease-fire was a ruse to soften their defenses before the Georgians attacked.
"He (Saakashvili) was not sincere. It was just a smokescreen . . . to carry out an ethnic purge," Dmitry Medoyev, the South Ossetian representative to Russia, said in a phone interview.
Tensions between Georgia and Russia have mounted in recent years, but both sides had stopped short of direct confrontation, and until now Georgia hadn't directly attacked Russia's allies in the rebel areas.
In April, the Georgian government charged that a Russian fighter jet had shot down one of its unmanned reconnaissance planes, an accusation that Russia denied. Georgia recalled its ambassador from Moscow last month after the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that the Russian air force had flown jets over South Ossetia "in order to clarify the situation" and "to cool heads in Tbilisi."
(McClatchy reporters William Douglas and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)
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