TBILISI, Georgia — Russian leaders said Tuesday they'd called off their military strikes against targets in Georgia, but bombing persisted in much of the country and the United States recommended that U.S. citizens leave Georgia because of the continued attacks.
Russian planes bombed the town of Gori, which sits between South Ossetia and Tbilisi, and helicopters launched missiles at surrounding villages. Smoke could be seen climbing from the area, where helicopters were swooping around a ridgeline and, in red flashes, sending down a rain of missile strikes.
It was unclear what the object of the attacks was. Georgian troops had completely evacuated the route between Gori and Tbilisi overnight, abandoning artillery and troop transports on the side of the road.
In Tbilisi, Georgians were glad to hear the fighting was mostly over — after days of panic that the Russians would take the capital — but had deep resentments about the war.
"It's like the old Soviet days, they were making an example of us for Ukraine and others to see," said Dato Gorgodze, who was walking back from a rally downtown where a sea of Georgians gathered waving flags, to support their government. "They wanted to demoralize the people."
In Moscow, French President Nicolas Sarkozy — the current head of the European Union — said that while the peace deal was not perfect, "what we need is to get out of a crisis … I just want to push people to dialogue."
Developments were moving so quickly that in Washington the White House scheduled and then postponed indefinitely a briefing for reporters by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev announced the cessation of hostilities in Moscow. "I have taken the decision to end the operation to force Georgian authorities into peace," he said in a statement. "The purpose of the operation has been achieved. ... The security of our peacekeeping forces and the civilian population has been restored … The aggressor has been punished and has suffered very considerable losses." he said.
He threatened more punishing military strikes, however. "If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them," he said.
Russia's foreign minister urged Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to step down, but insisted the Russians would not force him out.
A Russian military leader said the order to stop attacking didn't automatically mean that all actions had stopped.
"If we have received the order to ceasefire, this does not mean that we have stopped all actions, including reconnaissance," said Anatoly Nogovitsyyn, deputy head of the Russian General Staff.
Russian tank and infantry poured into Georgia last week after Georgian forces attempted to seize the capital of the pro-Russian breakway province of South Ossetia. Russian air power quickly established dominion over Georgia's skies and Georgian forces were quickly forced out of South Ossetia.
By Tuesday, Russia control both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Russian province, and had seized Georgia's principal Black Sea port and the outskirts of the strategic Georgian town of Gori.
The Russian military said the capital of the South Ossetia region was destroyed, apparently blaming the Georgians.
"Tskhinvali doesn't exist, it's like Stalingrad was after the war," said Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian General Staff. "Schools, hospital, houses, all infrastructure is ruined. There's no water, no electricity. We will rebuild it."
There was no independent confirmation, however, of the scope of the destruction or whether it was caused by the Georgian strikes last week or the fighting since then.
Despite the reported advance of Russian forces to the outskirts of Tbilisi, Russians insisted anew that they did not want to oust the pro-American government there.
"I don't think Russia will feel like talking with Mr. Saakashvili after what he did to our citizens," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“The best thing would be for him to resign,” he said, but added that Russia has “no plans to force anyone from power. This is not in our political culture at all."
(Thomma reported from Washington, Lasseter from Tbilisi.)