A state of martial law is to be declared by Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, as the fighting in the south Caucasus appeared to have spread beyond the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
On Friday, Russian jets had launched attacks inside Georgia, said the Georgian officials, while heavy fighting continued on the ground around Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.
“Russian air forces have bombed towns in Georgia, the port of Poti on the Black Sea, the town of Senaki … the Russian air assault ranges from the Black Sea coast in the west to the Azerbaijani border”, Giorgi Badrize, acting Georgian ambassador to the UK, told Al Jazeera.
“If this is not an all out war what is?” he asked.
“Georgia has been attacked by a formidable force, it is a brutal attack with the use of air force, tanks and even the trademark cyber attack.”
Vato Lezhava, Georgia’s deputy economic development minister, told the Reuters news agency that container tankers and a shipbuilding plant in the port of Poti had been hit by Russian fighter jets. He also said that the attacked involved between eight and 11 Russian jets.
After South Ossetia had come under bombardment from Georgian forces since a brief ceasefire on Thursday night, Russian tanks rolled into the country in order to support the separatists.
Despite losing 12 soldiers in heavy fighting with Georgian forces around Tshkinvali, the Russian peacekeeping force in the region said on Friday that it would not pullout.
“We’re not going anywhere and we are going to continue to fulfil the task that we were assigned”, said Marat Kulakhmetov, head of the contingent, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Although at one point, reports said that Georgian forces had been pushed back by heavy bombardments from Russian artillery, Georgia and South Ossetia have both claimed that they now control the capital.
“The entire city of Tskhinvali is currently controlled by units of South Ossetia’s defence forces”, Irina Gagloyeva, a spokeswoman for the South Ossetian authorities, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.
But shortly before that statement came, in a televised address, Georgian president (photo, from ruvr.ru) said that his forces controlled almost all of the territory.
“Georgian forces are controlling the entire territory of South Ossetia except Java … We are fully in control of Tskhinvali”, he said.
Georgian positions around the city had been destroyed by Russian tank and artillery units, a spokesman for Vladimir Boldyrev, Russia’s army chief, was quoted as saying.
“The positions from which Georgian troops were firing… have been destroyed by fire from artillery and tank units of the 58th army”, Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman, said.
In the fighting, 1 400 South Ossetians had been killed, said earlier on Friday the country’s separatist leader, Eduard Kokoity, to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
“About 1,400 died. We will check these figures, but the order of the numbers is around this. We have this on the basis of reports from relatives.”
Some sources say that Tskhinvali has been virtually destroyed and Russian troops are on the point of entering the city, the Georgian military says it has “liberated” the area.
Witnesses and officials told Russian news agencies that hundreds of civilians had been killed, buildings were ablaze and dead Georgian soldiers could be seen alongside destroyed tanks in the streets.
The main hospital in the regional capital had ceased functioning, said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The organisation has been told by local medical officials that the Respublika Hospital closed hours after Georgia launched its military offensive.
As emergency access to South Ossetia has been cut off since fighting began early on Friday, the news in “very alarming”, said Maia Kardova, an ICRC spokeswoman in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
Ambulances are unable to reach wounded civilians in the city, she said.
In response to the fighting in South Ossetia, president Saakashvili said he was urgently recalling 2,000 troops serving in Iraq.
“One brigade of Georgian forces is in Iraq and we are calling it home tomorrow”, he said.
At least five Russian aircraft had been shot down by Georgia’s air force, said the country’s interior ministry, though the claim could not be independently verified.
“The Georgian air force has downed at least five Russian aircraft. Bitter fighting is ongoing in Tskhinvali”, said Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman at the Georgian ministry
In other developments :
- The UN Security Council was holding its second emergency meeting on Friday in a bid to end the crisis, after failing to agree earlier on the wording of a Russian-drafted statement
- US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Russia to pull its troops out of Georgia and respect its territorial integrity
- Russia said it would cut all air links with Georgia from midnight on Friday
- The European security organisation, the OSCE, warned that the fighting in South Ossetia could escalate into a full-scale war
- The US and the EU were reported to be sending a joint delegation to the region to seek a ceasefire and Nato said it was seriously concerned.