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Georgian breakaway city in ruins

Tskhinvali, the capital of the separatist Georgian province South Ossetia, lay in smoldering ruins Sunday after three days of fighting between Georgian troops and Russian forces.

Russia's deputy foreign minister said at least 2,000 people, mostly Georgian citizens, have been killed in Tskhinvali.

The fighting had spread well beyond South Ossetia, with Russian airstrikes on Georgian cities and with thousands of Russian troops in the breakaway province of Abkhazia.

The United States warned Sunday that "disproportionate" actions against Georgia could have a "significant long term impact on U.S.-Russian relations."

The foreign ministers of France and Finland were both expected to arrive in Tbilisi Sunday evening to talk with Georgia officials about peace efforts, a Georgia foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

Georgia began withdrawing its soldiers from Tskhinvali early Sunday, but Georgian troops remained south of the capital inside South Ossetia. Georgian troops and their tanks lined the road leading from Tskhinvali back to the positions they held before Thursday.

Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, said the withdrawal was a show of goodwill, aimed at encouraging Russia to accept a cease-fire.

Heavy shelling from Russian artillery also prompted the pullback. Lomaia said about 200 Georgian soldiers have died so far in Russia attacks. Video Watch report on latest violence in Georgia »

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said talks could begin if Russian forces confirmed Georgia has completely withdrawn from South Ossetia and when Georgia signs a non-hostilities agreement.

The agreement, however, would have to include political changes for South Ossetia, Karasin said.

"They no longer believe they can live safely in the state of Georgia," said Karasin.

The fingerpointing over which side began the battle last Thursday intensified with Russia accusing Georgia of a genocidal plot to cleanse the region of ethnic Ossetians loyal to Russia.

Georgia accuses Russia of executing a long-planned war with the aim of taking control of the pipeline that carries Asian oil to Black Sea ports.

Russia's Black Sea Navy imposed a blockade on Georgia's coast, which it said was aimed at stopping shipments of military supplies into the country, according to Interfax, Russia's official news agency.

Urkaine, a former Soviet republic like Georgia, said it might prevent Russian navy ships involved in the blockade from returning to their bases in the Crimea, an spokeswoman with Urkaine's foreign ministry said.

"This statement is new to us and it requires analysis," said Russian Defense Ministry Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn. "It is a case of a third party intervening in the process, which is quite surprising."

Russia's Navy leases the bases from Ukraine through an agreement signed in 1997 which expires in 2017.

Russian soldiers in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia warned Georgian troops to move out of their way as they intend to advance into Georgia's western region, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Sunday.

The Russian forces plan to move into the city of Zugdidi, which is beyond the border of the breakaway province of Abkhazia, Utiashvili said.

White House Deputy National Security Advisor Jim Jeffrey said the United States was urgently looking into the report, saying that it would be a very serious escalation for Russia to move into Georgia beyond the Abkhazia region.

"We have made it clear to the Russians that if the disproportionate and dangerous escalation on the Russian side continues, that this will have a significant long-term impact on U.S.-Russian relations," Jeffrey, speaking to reporters in Beijing, China, on Sunday, said.

 

Russian forces launched an airstrike against a military airfield near the Tbilisi International Airport early Sunday, Georgian officials told CNN.

The attack near the Georgian capital city came after a day of intense fighting in the former Soviet republic, with dozens of Russian warplanes bombing civilian and military targets in Georgia on Saturday.

The situation in South Ossetia escalated rapidly from Thursday night, when Georgia said it launched an operation into the region after artillery fire from separatists killed 10 people, including peacekeepers and civilians. It accused Russia of backing the separatists.

Russian tanks began rolling into Georgia on Thursday night.

President George Bush, speaking from Beijing where he is attending the Olympic Games, called Saturday for an immediate halt to the violence, a stand-down by all troops, and an end to the Russian bombings. He urged the sides to return to "the status quo of August the 6th."

Bush spoke Saturday evening to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian President Medvedev, a White House spokesman said. Video Watch Saakashvili talk to CNN »

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who spoke to Putin at the Olympic opening ceremonies, also called for both sides to stand down and for "the full respect of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The United States, the European Union, and NATO are working toward a cease-fire, and the U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors to discuss the issue Saturday.

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