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Georgia says Russian aircraft bombed its air bases
Georgia South Osset 4823255
In this image, made from television, Russian tanks are moving towards the breakaway South Ossetia republic's capital, Tskhinvali, on Friday, Aug. 8, 2008. Russia's Defense Ministry says it has sent reinforcements to its peacekeepers deployed to South Ossetia to help end bloodshed. Georgian officials confirmed that the Russian convoy had crossed the border and was advancing toward Tskhinvali. Georgia launched a massive attack Friday to regain control over South Ossetia, using heavy artillery, aircraft and armor. South Ossetian officials said at least 15 people were killed Friday and an unspecified number were wounded. - photo by Associated Press
    DZHAVA, Georgia — Russia sent columns of tanks and reportedly bombed Georgian air bases Friday after Georgia launched a major military offensive Friday to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia, threatening to ignite a broader conflict.
    Hundreds of civilians were reported dead in the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won defacto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. Witnesses said the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali was devastated.
    ‘‘I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars,’’ said Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, who had fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia. ‘‘It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.’’
    The fighting broke out as much of the world’s attention was focused on the start of the Olympic Games and many leaders, including Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Bush, were in Beijing.
    The timing suggests Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili may have been counting on surprise to fulfill his longtime pledge to wrest back control of South Ossetia — a key to his hold on power.
    Saakashvili agreed the timing was not coincidental, but accused Russia of being the aggressor. ‘‘Most decision makers have gone for the holidays,’’ he said in an interview with CNN. ‘‘Brilliant moment to attack a small country.’’
    Diplomats called for another emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, its second since early Friday morning seeking to prevent an all-out war.
    The United States was sending an envoy to the region on Friday to meet with the parties involved.
    ‘‘We support Georgia’s territorial integrity,’’ State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters. ‘‘We are working on mediation efforts to secure a cease-fire.’’
    South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoity claimed hundreds of civilians had been killed.
    Ten Russian peacekeepers were killed and 30 wounded when their barracks were hit in Georgian shelling, said Russian Ground Forces spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov. Russia has soldiers in South Ossetia as peacekeeping forces but Georgia alleges they back the separatists.
    Georgia, which borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, has angered Russia by seeking NATO membership — a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its influence in the region.
    Speaking earlier on Georgian television, Saakashvili accused Russia of sending aircraft to bomb Georgian territory, which Russia denied.
    Georgia’s Foreign Ministry later accused Russian aircraft of bombing two military air bases inside Georgia, inflicting some casualties and destroying several military aircraft. Rustavi 2 television said four people were killed and five wounded at the Marneuli air base.
    Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was sending reinforcements for its peacekeepers, and Russian state television and Georgian officials reported a convoy of tanks had crossed the border. The convoy was expected to reach the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, by evening, Channel One television said.
    Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili said government troops were now in full control of the city.
    ‘‘We are facing Russian aggression,’’ said Georgia’s Security Council chief Kakha Lomaya. ‘‘They have sent in their troops and weapons and they are bombing our towns.’’
    Putin has warned that the Georgian attack will draw retaliation and the Defense Ministry pledged to protect South Ossetians, most of whom have Russian citizenship.
    Chairing a session of his Security Council in the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also vowed that Moscow will protect Russian citizens.
    ‘‘In accordance with the constitution and federal law, I, as president of Russia, am obliged to protect lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located,’’ Medvedev said, according to Russian news reports. ‘‘We won’t allow the death of our compatriots go unpunished.’’
    An AP reporter saw tanks and other heavy weapons concentrating on the Russian side of the border with South Ossetia — supporting the Russian TV reports of an incursion. Some villagers were fleeing into Russia.
    ‘‘I saw them (the Georgians) shelling my village,’’ said Maria, who gave only her first name. She said she and other villagers spent the night in a field and then fled toward the Russian border as the fighting escalated.
    Yakobashvili said Georgian forces have shot down four Russian combat planes over Georgian territory. He gave no details. Russia’s Defense Ministry denied an earlier Georgia report about one Russian plane downed and has had no immediate comment on the latest claim.
    Yakobashvili said that one Russian plane had dropped a bomb on the Vaziani military base near the Georgian capital, but no one was hurt.
    More than 1,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers were at the base last month to teach combat skills to Georgian troops. Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq, making it the third-largest contributor to coalition forces after the U.S. and Britain.
    South Ossetia officials said Georgia attacked with aircraft, armor and heavy artillery. Georgian troops fired missiles at Tskhinvali, an official said, and many buildings were on fire.
    Georgia’s president said Russian aircraft bombed several Georgian villages and other civilian facilities.
    ‘‘A full-scale aggression has been launched against Georgia,’’ Saakashvili said in a televised statement. He also announced a full military mobilization with reservists being called into action.
    A senior Russian diplomat in charge of the South Ossetian conflict, Yuri Popov, dismissed the Georgian claims of Russian bombings as misinformation, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
    Russia’s Defense Ministry denounced the Georgian attack as a ‘‘dirty adventure.’’ ‘‘Blood shed in South Ossetia will weigh on their conscience,’’ the ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site.
    Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev later chaired a session of his Security Council in the Kremlin, vowing that Moscow will protect Russian citizens.
    ‘‘In accordance with the constitution and federal law, I, as president of Russia, am obliged to protect lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located,’’ Medvedev said, according to Russian news reports. ‘‘We won’t allow the death of our compatriots go unpunished.’’
    Saakashvili long has pledged to restore Tbilisi’s rule over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia. Both regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and built up ties with Moscow.
    Relations between Georgia and Russia worsened notably this year as Georgia pushed to join NATO and Russia dispatched additional peacekeeper forces to Abkhazia.
    The Georgian attack came just hours after Saakashvili announced a unilateral cease-fire in a television broadcast late Thursday in which he also urged South Ossetian separatist leaders to enter talks on resolving the conflict.
    Georgian officials later blamed South Ossetian separatists for thwarting the cease-fire by shelling Georgian villages in the area.
    Associated Press writers Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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