TIRDZNISI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russia accused Georgia on Saturday of seeking bloody adventures by trying to retake its breakaway region of South Ossetia and defended its own military campaign to stop it.
Pro-western Georgia earlier called for a ceasefire after Moscow’s bombers widened an offensive to force Tbilisi’s troops back out of the region in the Caucasus mountains.
“Russia’s actions in South Ossetia are totally legitimate,” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, visiting an adjacent region of Russia to which thousands of refugees have fled.
U.S. President George W. Bush urged Moscow to stop bombing immediately, saying it marked a dangerous escalation.
Russian officials said the death toll in fighting that began on Thursday stood at 2,000. Georgian officials said that on their side, 129 people had been killed and 748 injured.
Russia said it had seized the rebel capital Tskhinvali but Georgia denied this. The Moscow-backed rebels contradicted each other, one leader saying Georgians had been beaten back, but another that “The city has been lost. We have been betrayed.”
Russian state TV reported a five-hour battle outside Tskhinvali but said the outcome was uncertain.
Current European Union president France urged Russia to accept Georgia’s truce offer.
“It (the EU presidency) demands an immediate ceasefire. It welcomes the offer of the ceasefire from Georgia and expects from Russia that it will immediately accept such a ceasefire.”
A senior U.S. official echoed that call, saying Russia had used disproportionate force in the conflict.
Britain said an EU-U.S. delegation would head to Georgia to try to broker a truce. The fighting threatens oil and gas pipelines seen as crucial in the West in a volatile region where instability could well spread.
Georgia said Russian planes had targeted a vital pipeline that carries oil to the West from Asia via neighboring Turkey but had missed.
Russia’s military action dramatically intensified its long-running stand-off with Georgia that has sparked alarm in the West and led to angry exchanges reminiscent of the Cold War.
Putin said Georgia’s bid to join the Western alliance NATO — anathema to Moscow — was part of the problem.
“Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO ... is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures,” he said, demanding Tbilisi halt its “aggression”.
Russian troops poured into South Ossetia on Friday, hours after Georgia launched a major offensive aimed at restoring control over the province.
Russia is the main backer of South Ossetian separatists and the majority of the population, ethnically distinct from Georgians, have been given Russian passports.
“I call for an immediate ceasefire,” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said earlier in Tbilisi. “Russia has launched a full-scale military invasion of Georgia.”
He accused Russia of deliberately targeting civilians.
Putin said more than 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia had fled over the border in the past 36 hours. Russian officials said two of Moscow’s warplanes had been shot down, 13 soldiers killed and 70 wounded.
Abkhazia, another pro-Russian enclave on Georgia’s Black Sea coast which, like South Ossetia, has rejected Tbilisi’s rule for many years, said its forces had begun an operation to drive out Georgian forces, possibly opening a second front.
U.N. officials said Abkhazia had asked the world body to withdraw military observers from a disputed gorge where the Georgians are.
Russian jets carried out up to five raids on mostly military targets around the Georgian town of Gori, close to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. At least one bomb hit an apartment block, killing five people.
A woman knelt in the street and screamed over the body of a dead man as the bombed apartment block burned nearby. Another old woman covered in blood stared into the distance and a man knelt by the road, his head in his hands.
“The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia. They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis,” Bush said at the Olympics in Beijing.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Bush by phone the only solution was for Georgian troops to quit the conflict zone.
“We have not received through any channels any appeal from the Georgian leadership to the president of Russia,” a Kremlin official said.
Georgia’s parliament approved a state of war across the country for the next 15 days, while Russia accused the West of contributing to the violence by supplying Georgia with arms.
Russian accused Ukraine — like Georgia a former Soviet republic now seeking NATO and EU membership — of encouraging Tbilisi to carry out “ethnic cleansing” in South Ossetia.
Russia, which sent in tanks to back the South Ossetians, said its forces had “liberated” the enclave’s capital, but Georgia said Tskhinvali was under its complete control.
The city could be seen shrouded in valley mist from the higher-up village of Tirdznisi, in the Georgian-controlled part of South Ossetia around 10 km (six miles) away.
“The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many wounded,” Russian journalist Zaid Tsarnayev told Reuters from Tskhinvali.
In Tbilisi, people were nervous but defiant. Most supported Saakashvili but had been shocked by the Russian reaction.
“To fight Russia is crazy,” said music studio owner Giga Kvenetadze, 30. “But I do support Saakashvili ... And what Russia is doing is wrong. They must stop.”
Georgia was planning to bring its Iraq contingent of 2,000 soldiers home as soon as possible.
The U.N. Security Council met on Saturday to discuss the conflict for the third time in three days but, with Russia a veto-wielding member, was again too split to issue a unanimous call for a ceasefire, diplomats said.
European countries once in the Soviet sphere condemned Russia in language that also harked back to the Cold War.
“The European Union and NATO must take up the initiative and oppose the spread of imperialist and revisionist policy in the east of Europe,” the presidents of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia said in a joint statement.