TSKHINVALI, Georgia (Reuters) – Russian troops and tanks took the capital of the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia on Sunday after a bloody three-day battle as Georgian forces retreated and offered a ceasefire.
Russia ordered in soldiers and bombed Georgian targets after Tbilisi attempted on Thursday evening to retake South Ossetia, a small pro-Russian province which broke away from Georgia in the 1990s.
The United States, Georgia’s main ally, condemned Moscow’s military action and warned that any further escalation could have a “significant, long-term impact” on relations.
It called on Russia and Georgia to cease hostilities and return to their pre-conflict positions, under which Moscow acted as a peacekeeper in South Ossetia.
A Reuters photographer entering Tskhinvali with Russian troops saw the bodies of Georgian soldiers lying in the streets and the ruins of buildings devastated in the fighting.
Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said it had told Russia on Sunday evening that it was ready “to immediately start negotiations” on a ceasefire and an end to hostilities.
Russia confirmed it had received the note but said Georgia had not stopped hostilities and continued to shell South Ossetia. Georgia accused Russia of again bombing a military airport on the outskirts of Tbilisi on Sunday evening, after the ceasefire offer.
In a possible opening of a second front in the conflict, Georgia accused Russia of starting a military operation earlier on Sunday in Abkhazia, another separatist region of Georgia to the west of South Ossetia. Moscow denied involvement.
The crisis has alarmed the United States, Georgia’s main ally, and unnerved investors in Russia, who sold stocks and the rouble heavily on Friday on concerns the conflict could spiral.
The West is vying for influence with Russia over oil and gas supply routes in the region and Russia is rankled by Georgia’s pro-Western policies and its drive for NATO membership.
Georgia and Russia have accused each other of causing widespread civilian casualties since the fighting began.
State-controlled Russian television repeatedly spoke of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in South Ossetia after the Georgian attack, with more than 2,000 dead and thousands homeless.
President Dmitry Medvedev termed the Georgian action a “genocide” and ordered officials to document what he termed Tbilisi’s crimes in South Ossetia.
A Georgian government source said on Sunday that 130 Georgian civilians and military had been killed and 1,165 wounded, many because of Russian bombing inside Georgia. Russia denied hitting civilian targets.
Russia’s military commander on the ground in South Ossetia, General Anatoly Khrulyov, was wounded by shrapnel when his convoy came under Georgian fire, Russian agencies reported.
“As of today most of the city (Tskhinvali) is controlled by Russian peacekeeping forces,” Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn of the Russian General Staff, told a briefing in Moscow.
The White House criticised Russia’s actions, which included bombing at least three Georgian targets outside South Ossetia.
“We deplore the dangerous and disproportionate actions by Russian forces and we would be particularly troubled if these attacks are continuing now as the Georgians are pulling back,” said President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser James Jeffrey.
Russian television showed what it said were pictures from Tskhinvali of burnt-out buildings, wounded civilians receiving medical treatment in basements and crying mothers complaining of a lack of food and water.
“The Georgian tanks fired at everything they saw, including women and children,” one man said after his evacuation over the border to the Russian region of North Ossetia.
Pictures on NTV television showed Tskhinvali’s main hospital in ruins and most of the more than 230 patients crammed into the basement. Patients, many of them wincing, were receiving treatment on tabletops from clearly harried doctors.
A few bare lightbulbs provided scant illumination and the report said the hospital had no ready supply of water. Some patients sat listlessly on beds jammed into a tiny, dim area with unfinished walls.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cut short his visit to the Olympics and flew on Saturday to a field hospital in North Ossetia, visiting wounded troops and evacuees, and denouncing what he termed Georgia’s “crimes against its own people”.
Putin later briefed a Moscow-bound Medvedev on his trip, in a televised exchange which underlined Putin’s continued dominance of Russian politics and government.
Potentially widening the conflict, the Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh said on Sunday he had ordered 1,000 troops to push Georgian forces out of the Kodori Gorge, a strategic pocket of territory in Abkhazia, and called up reservists.
Georgia denounced what it termed “new aggression” by Moscow in Abkhazia, a strip of land along the Black Sea coast which also broke away from Georgian control.
“They have started the operation to storm Kodori Gorge,” a Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman said.
Russian general Nogovitsyn denied Moscow was taking part in any operation in Abkhazia beyond its agreed peacekeeping role.
“We are not going to undertake any actions which are going to lead to escalation of the situation in this region,” he said.
Russia’s navy also entered the conflict, deploying a flotilla off Georgia’s Black Sea coast. The navy said the ships later put into a Russian Black Sea port, though some reports from Georgia accused them of attempting to blockade the country.