By Jeff Mason
HONOLULU, Aug 9 (Reuters) - U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain stepped up their criticism of Russia’s military activity in Georgia on Saturday, calling for Moscow to withdraw its forces and the international community to facilitate peace talks.
McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona who has made foreign policy and national security the centerpiece of his campaign, said he spoke to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Saturday, their second conversation since the crisis erupted.
Obama, on vacation in Hawaii, said he had also spoken to Saakashvili and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Russia and Georgia came into direct conflict after Tbilisi launched an offensive to regain control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
McCain, an outspoken critic of Moscow, said it was clear the situation in Georgia was dire. "Tensions and hostilities between Georgians and Ossetians are in no way justification for Russian troops crossing an internationally recognized border," he said in a statement.
"I again call on the government of Russia to immediately and unconditionally withdraw its forces from the territory of Georgia."
Obama called for direct talks among all sides and said the United States, the U.N. Security Council and other parties should try to help bring about a peaceful resolution.
"I condemn Russia’s aggressive actions and reiterate my call for an immediate ceasefire," Obama said in a statement.
"Russia must stop its bombing campaign, cease flights of Russian aircraft in Georgian airspace, and withdraw its ground forces from Georgia."
McCain has long criticized Russia, particularly for what he sees as its backsliding on democratic reforms and human rights. "For many years, I have warned against Russian actions that undermine the sovereignty of its neighbors," he said. "Unfortunately, we have seen in recent days Russia demonstrate that these concerns were well-founded."
Obama has stepped up his criticism of Russia since the crisis started. He called for an international peacekeeping force and said Russia could not be a neutral mediator for political disputes over South Ossetia and Abkhazia — both pro-Russian separatist regions backed by Moscow.
"The current escalation of military conflict resulted in part from the lack of a neutral and effective peacekeeping force operating under an appropriate UN mandate," Obama said. "Russia cannot play a constructive role as peacekeeper."
President George W. Bush has urged Moscow to stop bombing immediately, saying it marked a dangerous escalation.
Georgia is a close ally of the United States and has relied on military aid and training from Washington, which has pushed hard for Georgia to become a member of NATO despite strong opposition from Russia.
McCain said NATO’s decision to withhold a Membership Action Plan for Georgia "may have been viewed as a green light for aggression in the region."
In New York, several hundred Georgians gathered across the street from United Nations headquarters to hold a candlelight protest against Russia’s actions. They held Georgian flags and posters with slogans such as "Putin killer," referring to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it had authorized the departure from Georgia of family members of certain staff and repeated a warning to Americans to defer travel to the country. (Writing by Jeff Mason and Patsy Wilson; editing by Chris Wilson)