Russia halts Georgia assault

August 13, 2008 6:48:13 AM PDT
Declaring "the aggressor has been punished," the Kremlin ordered a halt Tuesday to Russia's devastating assault on Georgia - five days of air and ground attacks that left homes in smoldering ruins and uprooted 100,000 people. Georgia said the bombs and shells were still coming hours after the cease-fire was declared, and its President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia's aim all along was not to gain control of two disputed provinces but to "destroy" the smaller nation, a former Soviet state and current U.S. ally.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in Moscow, said Georgia had paid enough for its attack on South Ossetia, a separatist region along the Russian border with close ties to Russia.

"The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized," Medvedev said.

Still, the president ordered his defense minister at a televised Kremlin meeting: "If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them."

Hours later, Saakashvili told reporters that he generally accepted the cease-fire plan negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which calls for both sides to move back Russia accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in the separatist province of 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.

The first relief flight from the U.N. refugee agency arrived in Georgia as the number of people uprooted by the conflict neared 100,000. Thousands streamed into the capital.

Those left behind in devastated regions of Georgia cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered nearly deserted cities.

In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian provincial capital now under Russian control, the body of a Georgian soldier lay in the street 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. 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.

Besides the dead, tens of thousands of terrified people have fled the fighting - South Ossetians north to Russia, and Georgians east toward the capital of Tbilisi and wes he said. "But our American colleagues are telling us that they're investigating now what may have happened in the channels of communication for Mr. Saakashvili to have behaved in such a reckless manner."

President Bush, one day earlier, had called the Russian invasion unacceptable, and on Tuesday the Russian president assailed the West for supporting Georgia. "International law doesn't envision double standards," Medvedev said.

U.S. officials were focused on confirming a cease-fire and attending to Georgia's urgent humanitarian needs.

"The Russians need to stop their military operations as they have apparently said that they will, but those military operations really do now need to stop because calm needs to be restored," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

Georgia, which is pushing for NATO membership, borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s. Both separatist provinces are backed by Russia, which appears open to absorbing them.

Medvedev said Georgia must allow the provinces to decide whether they want to remain part of Russia.

"Ossetians and Abkhaz must respond to that question taking their history into account, including what happened in the past few days," Medvedev said grimly.

Medvedev said Russian peacekeepers would stay in both provinces, even as Saakashvili said his government will officially designate them as occupying forces.

In Tbilisi, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza declined to say whether the U.S. would provide military support if Russia expands its assault.

Georgia sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and bypassing Russia. The British oil company BP shut down one of three Georgian pipelines, saying it was a precaution.