GORI, Georgia (Reuters) – Russia said it had driven Georgian forces from the capital of South Ossetia on Saturday as part of an operation to force Georgia to accept peace in its breakaway region.
“Tactical groups have fully liberated Tskhinvali from the Georgian military and have started pushing Georgian units beyond the zone of peacekeepers responsibility,” Tass quoted Ground Forces commander Vladimir Boldyrev as saying.
Russian warplanes widened the offensive outside the immediate conflict zone to include strikes deep inside Georgia on the second day of fighting.
Jets carried out up to five raids on mostly military targets around the Georgian town of Gori, close to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. But he saw at least one bomb hit an apartment, killing five people.
Russia said the death toll in the two-day conflict had hit 1,500 and was rising, prompting warnings from President Dmitry Medvedev of a humanitarian catastrophe that Moscow was determined to halt by force.
“Our peacekeepers and reinforcement units are currently running an operation to force the Georgian side to (agree to) peace,” Russian news agencies quoted Medvedev as saying at a meeting with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
“They are also responsible for protecting the population. That’s what we are doing now,” Medvedev added.
Russian troops poured into South Ossetia on Friday, hours after Georgia launched a large-scale offensive aimed at restoring control over the province lost after a war in the early 1990s.
Russia is the main backer of South Ossetian separatists and the majority of the population, who are ethnically different from Georgians, have been given Russian passports.
Tbilisi accuses Russia of launching a war against it.
CALLS FOR END TO FIGHTING
Russia sent fresh reinforcements overnight, which according to Russian news agencies have reached the regional capital Tskhinvali where fierce battles rage.
The Russian military said more reinforcements were on their way and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was not seeking all-out war with Georgia.
Russia’s military response to the crisis dramatically intensified a long-running stand-off between Russia and the pro-Western Georgian leadership that has sparked alarm in the West and led to angry exchanges at the United Nations reminiscent of the Cold War.
With Washington the main backer of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the U.S. State Department called in a top Russian diplomat to urge Moscow to halt military involvement in the conflict that erupted in earnest late on Thursday night.
Each side blamed the other for the outbreak of fighting in the pro-Moscow enclave, which broke from Georgia as the Soviet Union neared collapse in the early 1990s.