Source AP ©

Georgia's Saakashvili does his best to blacken Russia and please the West

Georgian officials charged Wednesday that Russian tanks had rolled into a strategic city and seized a military base inside Georgia, violating an EU-brokered truce designed to end a six-day conflict that has battered a U.S. ally and uprooted an estimated 100,000 people.

The accusation came less than 12 hours after Georgia's president said he accepted a cease-fire plan brokered by France. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia was halting military action because Georgia had paid enough for its attack on South Ossetia, a separatist region along the Russian border with close ties to Moscow.

The EU peace plan's concept of having both sides retreat to their original positions was running into the stark reality of Russian dominance on the battlefield. In addition to the Russian tanks entering Gori, a key central Georgian city outside the breakaway province of South Ossetia, Georgia also lost its last stronghold in another separatist province, Abkhazia.

In central Georgia, about 50 Russian tanks entered Gori on Wednesday morning, according to a top Georgian official, Alexander Lomaia. The city of 50,000 sits on Georgia's only significant east-west road 15 miles south of South Ossetia, where much of the fighting has taken place.

Complete confirmation of Lomaia's claim was not possible, but an APTN television crew in Gori saw some Russian armored vehicles Wednesday morning near a military base there. Puffs of smoke in the air indicated some military action.

In Moscow, a Russian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to give his name denied the Georgian report.

Russia has handed out passports to most in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and stationed peacekeepers in the both regions since the early 1990s. Georgia wants the Russian peacekeepers out, but Medvedev insisted Tuesday they would stay.

In the west, Georgian troops acknowledged Wednesday they had completely pulled out of a small section of Abkhazia which they had controlled - a development that reduces further significant fighting in Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge but leaves the entire area in the hands of the Russian-backed separatists.

Russia says the separatist forces, not the Russian military, did the job. But the claim rang hollow - an AP reporter saw 135 Russian military vehicles heading toward the gorge Tuesday and Russia is the separatists' military patron.

Still, the effect was clear. Abkhazia was out of Georgian hands and it would take more than an EU peace plan to get it back in.

One of two separatists areas trying to leave Georgia for Russia, Abkhazia lies close to the heart of many Russians. It's Black Sea coast was a favorite vacation spot for the Soviet elite, and the province is just down the coast from Sochi, the Russian resort that will host the 2014 Olympics.

Lomaia said Russian troops also still held the western town of Zugdidi near Abkhazia, controlling the region's main highway.

As the Russia military appeared to be carving out a new geographical map, the first U.N. relief flight arrived in Georgia, to help the tens of thousands uprooted by six days of fighting. Thousands of Georgian refugees have streamed into Tbilisi, the capital, or the western Black Sea coast while thousands more South Ossetian refugees headed north to Russia. Those left behind in devastated regions of Georgia cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered nearly deserted cities.

At a huge rally Tuesday night, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia's aim all along was not to gain control of the two disputed provinces but to "destroy" the smaller nation, a former Soviet state and current U.S. ally who wants to join NATO.

Saakashvili, speaking to thousands at a jam-packed square in Tbilisi, said the Russian invasion was not about the two disputed provinces.

"They just don't want freedom, and that's why they want to stamp on Georgia and destroy it," he declared Tuesday.

Saakashvili was jointed by the leaders of five former Soviet bloc states - Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine - who also spoke out against Russian domination.

"Our neighbor thinks it can fight us. We are telling it no," said Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

In Brussels, Belgium, France was seeking support from its EU partners to deploy European peacekeeping monitors to the area. But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the move would only take place with the consent of both Russia and Georgia.

Russia accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in South Ossetia. The claim couldn't be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died.

The overall death toll was expected to rise because large areas of Georgia were still too dangerous for journalists to enter and see the true scope of the damage.

Georgian Health Minister Alexander Kvitashvili said Wednesday that 175 Georgians had died in five days of air and ground attacks that left homes in smoldering ruins. He said many died Tuesday in a Russian bombing raid of Gori just hours before Medvedev declared fighting halted.

An AP reporter also saw heavy damage inflicted to a Georgian village near Gori by a raid Tuesday. Two men and a woman in Ruisi were killed and another five were wounded.

"I always hide in the basement," said one villager, the 70-year old Vakhtang Chkhekvadze as he pulled off a window frame blasted by an explosion. "But this time the explosion came so abruptly, I don't remember what happened afterward."

In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian provincial capital now under Russian control, the body of a Georgian soldier lay in the street Tuesday along with debris as separatist fighters launched rockets at a Georgian plane soaring overhead.

A tour by AP journalists found the heaviest damage around the government center. Near the city center, pieces of tanks lay near a bomb crater. The turret of one tank was blown into the front of the printing school across the street. A severed foot lay on the sidewalk nearby. Yet several residential areas seemed to have little damage beyond shattered windows.

A poster hanging nearby showed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the words "Say yes to peace and stability." Broken glass and other debris littered the ground.

The Russia-Georgia dispute reached the international courts, with the Georgian security council saying it had sued Russia for alleged ethnic cleansing. For his part, Medvedev reiterated accusations that Georgia had committed "genocide" in trying to reclaim South Ossetia.

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