Bush tells Russia to reverse course in Georgia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush pressed Russia on Monday to end its military action in Georgia, warning a “dramatic and brutal escalation” of Moscow’s push into the smaller country would jeopardize its relations with the West.

Bush said it appeared Moscow was trying to overthrow the elected government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a close U.S. ally.

“Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century,” Bush told reporters at the White House.

The crisis began Thursday when Georgia sent forces to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Russian area that broke from Georgia in the 1990s. Moscow, which supports South Ossetia’s independence, responded by sending its troops into Georgia.

Bush cited reports that Russian troops had moved beyond the separatist areas and into Georgia proper.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori and are threatening Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi,” he said after returning from a trip to China for the Olympics.

“There is evidence that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city. If these reports are accurate, these Russian actions would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia.”

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Bush said continuation of the conflict over separatist South Ossetia would be “inconsistent with the assurances that we have received from Russia that its objectives were limited to restoring the status quo” that existed before fighting began.

Bush said Georgia had agreed to elements of a peace agreement that Russia had previously said it would accept: an immediate cease-fire, the withdrawal of forces from the zone of conflict, a return to the military status quo as of August 6 and a commitment to refrain from using force.

“Russia’s government must respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Russian government must reverse the course that it appears to be on and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward resolving this conflict,” Bush said.

“Russia’s actions this week have raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. These actions have substantially damaged Russia’s standing in the world,” he said. “And these actions jeopardize Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe. It is time for Russia to be true to its word and to act to end this crisis.” (Reporting by David Alexander, Editing by Kristin Roberts)