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Russia: Paratroopers in breakaway capital

Russian paratroopers entered the capital of the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia on Saturday as part of a military operation that Russia said was intended to force the Georgian side to cease fire.

Separatist-backed South Ossetian sources reported about 1,600 people have died and 90 have been wounded in the capital of Tskhinvali after two days of fighting, but Georgian officials said the figure was inflated. The Georgians said they didn't have their own death toll, but it would likely be closer to 100.

Inna Gagloyeva, the spokeswoman for the South Ossetian Information and Press Committee, told the Interfax news agency the capital was being "massively shelled" with artillery guns.

It was also unclear which side was in control of Tskhinvali on Saturday, with the Georgian side saying fighting still raged but the Russians saying they have "liberated" the city.

"Battalion task forces have fully liberated Tskhinvali of Georgian armed forces and started pushing Georgian units out of the area of responsibility of the peacekeeping forces," said General Vladimir Boldyrev, commander of the Russian Ground Forces, in an interview with Interfax.

Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, told a news conference that the paratroopers will "implement the operation of enforcing peace" on both sides.

Nogovitsyn also confirmed that Georgians had shot down two Russian aircraft.

Russia said the troops were also reinforcing the Russian peacekeepers already in South Ossetia.

"Our peacekeepers, along with reinforcement units, are currently conducting an operation to force the Georgian side to accept peace," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said at the Kremlin, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency. "They are also responsible for protecting the population."

Interfax said 15 peacekeepers were killed in the Friday attack by Georgian troops. Russia has opened a criminal probe into their deaths, Interfax reported.

Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, is a pro-Western ally of the United States intent on asserting its authority over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which both have strong Russian-backed separatist movements.

Russia moved troops into South Ossetia early Friday after Georgia launched an operation in the breakaway region when its unilateral cease-fire was met with what it said was artillery fire from separatists that killed 10 people, including peacekeepers and civilians. Video Watch images of crashed Georgian war plane »

Russia charged that Georgia had targeted its peacekeepers stationed in the region. Video Watch Georgian minister describe fighting in South Ossetia »

Medvedev said Saturday that Georgia must be held responsible for the situation in South Ossetia.

"The people responsible for this humanitarian disaster need to be held liable for what they have done," Medvedev said. He said the humanitarian problems were caused by "the aggression launched by the Georgian side against the South Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers."

Russian officials said more than 30,000 refugees have left South Ossetia and crossed into Russia over the past two days, since fighting began, Interfax reported.

A Red Cross official in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi was unable to provide refugee or casualty figures Saturday morning because she said aid workers were still gathering information and visiting hospitals in South Ossetia and western Georgia, where she said two towns suffered damage overnight.

Maia Kardava, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross delegation in Tbilisi, said Russian forces bombarded military and civilian targets the port town of Poti, on Georgia's Black Sea coast. Georgian officials said eight Georgians were killed in the port town.

In the town of Senaki, just inland from Poti, Russian forces damaged a railway line, a military base, and a center housing civilians who fled from nearby Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian region.

The Georgian town of Gori, about 35 miles northwest of Tbilisi, came under attack from Russian aircraft, Georgian officials said.

 

Inside South Ossetia, civilians have been without water, electricity, and basic services for more than a day, Kardava said. She said the Red Cross was unable to reach colleagues based in Tskhinvali because their phones had lost power and they were huddled in bomb shelters.

Also Saturday, the commander of Georgian troops stationed in Iraq said the 2,000 soldiers currently there will be withdrawn from Iraq "very soon."

Colonel Bondo Maisuradze said the United States would provide the transport to get them out of Iraq. He said he had no timeframe for the move.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told CNN Friday that the troops were needed in Georgia to defend against the Russian military.Video Watch the interview with Saakashvili »
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