West urges an end to South Ossetia fighting

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, NATO and the European Union called for an immediate end to fighting in Georgia’s South Ossetia region and called for talks between the sides.

Russia sent forces into Georgia on Friday to repel a Georgian assault on the breakaway region and Georgia’s pro-Western president said the two countries were at war.

The United States asserted its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and urged a ceasefire.

State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the United States was sending an envoy to the region.

“We urge all parties, including Georgians, South Ossetians and Russians to de-escalate and avoid conflict,” Gallegos said.

The Pentagon said it had received no request for assistance from Georgian officials since Russian forces entered the country.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin discussed Georgia, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, but gave no information about the talks or their timing. The leaders were seen chatting before a lunch hosted by China for foreign leaders attending the Olympic Games in Beijing.

“The NATO Secretary-General (Jaap de Hoop Scheffer) calls on all sides for an immediate end of the armed clashes and calls for direct talks between the parties,” a NATO statement said.

A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: “We repeat our message to all parties to immediately stop the violence.”


Solana spoke by telephone to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the spokesman said. He was also due to talk to Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili.

France, holder of the EU presidency, said its foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, had been in contact with all the parties involved with the aim of achieving a ceasefire.

A French Foreign Ministry statement reiterated France’s support for the territorial integrity of Georgia, a position held by the EU as a whole and by NATO.

EU-member Lithuania, a staunch ally of Saakashvili, said it would send its foreign minister on a fact-finding mission to Georgia on Friday.

The crisis, the first to confront Russian President Dmitry Medvedev since he took office in May, looked close to developing into full-blown war in a region emerging as a key energy transit route, and where Russia and the West are vying for influence.

Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, has angered Russia by allying itself with the West and pushing to join NATO. It lies at the heart of the Caucasus — an unstable region which hosts a pipeline carrying oil to Europe from Asia.

The EU has reiterated its willingness to take a greater role in peace efforts. It said it was in contact with international partners including Russia, Georgia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) about the situation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged the warring sides to allow aid agencies access to civilians in South Ossetia and evacuate the wounded.

“Ambulances are finding it hard to reach injured people and frightened residents are hiding in their basements, without electricity, water, communications or access to services, Dominique Liengme, head of the ICRC’s Georgia delegation said.

The Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group said the fighting was a humanitarian threat to 75,000 civilians in South Ossetia and posed the risk of a larger regional conflict.

“A united international position is essential to forestall further conflict and loss of life,” it said.

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