Georgian troops, planes, pound separatists

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Georgian troops, backed by warplanes, Have pounded separatist forces on the outskirts of the South Ossetian capital, hours after launching an assault on the breakaway region following a short-lived truce.

Georgian big guns shelled Tskhinvali, where government and separatists envoys had been due to meet for Russia-mediated peace talks later on Friday, and many houses were ablaze.

Russia, main backer of the separatists who have controlled the region since a war in the early 1990s, accused Georgia of treachery and urged the world community to avert "massive bloodshed".

The crisis fuelled fears of full-blown war in the region, which is emerging as a vital energy transit route and where Russia and the West are vying for influence.

In New York, members of the UN Security Council were to meet in emergency session at Russia's request to discuss the crisis.

Georgia said the operation, launched after a week of clashes between separatists and the troops in which nearly 20 people were killed, was aimed at ending South Ossetia's effective independence won in a 1991-92 war.

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"We are forced to restore constitutional order in the whole region," the commander of Georgian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Mamuka Kurashvili, told Georgian television.

In Tskhinvali, thousands of people took refuge from the shelling in make-shift shelters in the cellars of their homes. Russian television showed pictures of houses on fire.

"We have been sitting here for two days already," an elderly woman surrounded by members of her family told Russia's Vesti-24 television.

"It is scary. We don't know whether Georgians are advancing or what," she added nervously trying to fix a candle in the dark vault. "We even did not have time to take radios."

A Vesti-24 correspondent in Tskhinvali, Andrei Chistyakov, said at least 15 civilians had been killed in the town. "These are the people whose bodies were seen in their yards and in the streets," he said by telephone.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who wants to take his small Caucasus nation into Nato, has set a priority on winning back control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebel region on the Black Sea.

But he has promised not to use force.

The issue has bedevilled Georgia's relations with Russia, which is angered by Tbilisi's moves towards the Western fold and its pursuit of Nato membership.

On Thursday, Saakashvili announced a unilateral truce and gave a go-ahead for peace talks in Tskhinvali on Friday. But just few hours later Tbilisi accused separatists of shelling Georgian-populated villages and set troops in motion.

A Reuters correspondent saw two unidentified planes over the area close to Tskhinvali around 0230 GMT, when the Georgian shelling of the town became especially heavy.

The roar of warplanes and explosions of heavy shells was deafening more than 3km away from the town.

Georgian National Security Council secretary Kakha Lomaia said that several Soviet-designed Su-25 planes took part in a strike on the village of Tkverneti.

"These planes can be used again if the needs comes to hit foreign mercenaries arriving in the region," he said. "But they will not be used in Tskhinvali."

Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili said that government forces had taken control of five Ossetian villages loyal to separatists.

Separatists said the Georgians made several failed attempts to seize the town overnight. They vowed to repel the attack without calling for help from Moscow, their main backer.

In a sign of broadening conflict, hundreds of volunteers from Russia and Abkhazia headed to South Ossetia to support the separatist forces, Russian news agencies reported.

The Russian Foreign Ministry appealed for world efforts to prevent huge bloodshed.

"It is not too late to avert massive bloodshed and new victims," it said. "Russia will continue efforts to avert the bloodshed and restore peace in South Ossetia."

Russian envoy Yuri Popov said Georgia's military operation showed it could not be trusted and Nato should reconsider its plans to grant membership to Tbilisi.

"Georgia's step is absolutely incomprehensible and shows that the Georgian leadership has zero credit of trust," Popov, who was dispatched to the region on emergency, said in televised comments. "Georgia's behaviour is treacherous."

Reuters