The Russian Army had entered indisputable Georgian territory, focusing public anxiety on the central question of the war: would the Kremlin be content to disable Georgia militarily and annex the breakaway regions, or did it intend to overthrow Georgia’s government and occupy the country as a whole?
The two sides disagreed over the significance of the move. The Russian Defense Ministry said it captured the base at Senaki, which fell without evident resistance, to prevent Georgian military units from regrouping and threatening Abkhazia, which along with South Ossetia declared de facto independence from Georgia when the Soviet Union broke up. Georgian officials said the country was under wide-scale assault aimed at overthrowing the government.
President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia addressed the nation, saying Russian troops had reached the road connecting the eastern and western parts of Georgia. “The situation in Georgia is very difficult because Russia is doing everything possible to occupy the country,” he told the Georgian Security Council.
But Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia blamed the Georgian leadership and the West for deliberately miscasting Russia’s actions, and he accused the Georgians of war crimes. “The cold war has long ended but the mentality of the cold war has stayed firmly in the minds of several U.S. diplomats,” Mr. Putin said.
And President Dmitri A. Medvedev said Russian forces had “completed a significant part of the operations to oblige Georgia, the Georgian authorities, to restore peace to South Ossetia,” according to a Kremlin transcript of his remarks.
In Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, rumors swept the city as residents worried about the possibility of a Russian bombardment, siege or assault.
There were conflicting reports along the road between the Russian columns and the capital about whether the Russians had captured Gori, a central Georgian town with a major military installation astride the country’s main east-west road about a 45-minute drive from the capital. The city, the birthplace of Stalin, was now a potential strategic prize.
A CNN crew in Gori saw Georgian forces piling into trucks and leaving the city at high speed.
CNN saw thousands of troops driving out of the city, as well as thousands of civilians traveling by convoy from Gori toward Tbilisi.
Gori lies along Georgia's main east-west highway, and is an important site for Georgia's communication systems.
Russian troops were also in Senaki, in western Georgia, having advanced from the breakaway area of Abkhazia, Russian and Georgian officials said.
Russia's Interfax news agency cited an official with the Russian Defense Ministry saying troops were in Senaki to "prevent attacks by Georgian military units against South Ossetia." Senaki is home to a Georgian military base.
Georgia's interior ministry said Russia had also seized control of Zugdidi -- a city on the route between Abkhazia and Senaki.
In Washington on Monday, President Bush said Russia's attacks against Georgia have "substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world."
Bush also warned Russia against trying to depose Georgia's government, saying evidence suggests Russia may be preparing to do so.
He called on Russia to accept a cease-fire proposal that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had signed.
Saakashvili said Monday the internationally brokered proposal would be taken to Moscow by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb on Monday evening.
A Georgian National Security Council official said the proposal called for an unconditional cease-fire, a non-use of force agreement, a withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, including the South Ossetia region, and provisions for international peacekeeping and mediation.
Later Monday, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations said Russia would not sign off on a draft U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire discussed by the U.N. Security Council.
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By Friday morning, Georgian forces overran several South Ossetian villages and entered the region’s capital, Tskhinvali. The city of 35,000 residents is reported to have been flattened by Georgian artillery fire that included salvos of deadly Grad multiple rocket launchers.
Thousands of civilians are feared to have died in the fire, said a government spokesman in South Ossetia.
General Mamuka Kurashvili, Georgian military commander in the region, said on local television the Georgian forces had moved to “establish constitutional order in the region.”
Mr. Saakashvili has long promised to retake South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two separatist provinces that broke away from Georgia after bloody armed conflicts in the early 1990s. In his televised address on Friday, Mr. Saakashvili announced a full military mobilisation with reservists being called into action.
Direct armed confrontation between Russian and Georgian forces appears imminent.
According to Channel One of the Russian television, two Russian battalions of the 58th Army rushed into South Ossetia on Friday, were deployed near Tskhinvali and were firing at Georgian positions.
Thousands of Russian volunteers are reported to be heading to South Ossetia to help fight Georgian forces.
The conflict is likely to spread as Abkhazia threatened to open a second front against Georgia under a mutual defence pact with South Ossetia.
Earlier, a spokesman for the Kremlin said Russia had turned down the latest peace offer signed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
He said: "According to information from peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Georgia continues to use military force and in this regard we cannot consider this document."
An earlier statement by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated the operation in the region was almost over. It said: "A significant part of the operation to force the Georgian authorities to make peace in South Ossetia has been concluded. Tskhinvali is under the control of a reinforced Russian peacekeeping contingent."
Overnight, airstrikes continued despite pleas from the international community urging the two countries to agree to an "immediate" halt to military action amid reports that more than 2,000 people have been killed and thousands are homeless.
As Georgian military bases and radar installations were bombed, Moscow issued an ultimatum to over 1,500 Georgian forces stationed in another separatist region, the Zugdidi district near Abkhazia, to disarm or face attack. Georgia swiftly rejected the demand.
In Moscow, Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia's general staff, told reporters that a total of four Russian aircraft have been lost in the conflict but that his troops would not extend their action beyond South Ossetia.
"We are not crossing the (de facto) border, that's our key principle. Russian peacekeeping troops have received no orders to invade Georgian territory," he said.
The crisis in the Caucasus has triggered alarm in the West as Georgia is an important energy transit route and has a key pipeline carrying oil west from the Caspian to European markets.
On Saturday, Russian planes bombed a military airfield and Tbilisi said Russian air attacks had badly damaged its Black sea port of Poti, an important oil shipment facility.
US President George W Bush condemned Moscow's "disproportionate response" to the crisis. A big supporter of President Saakashvili, Mr Bush said he had spoken firmly to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about the situation.
He said: "I was very firm with Vladimir Putin. I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia. We strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia."
And Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer accused Russia of using excessive force and violating Georgian territory. His spokeswoman Carmen Romero said: "He is seriously concerned about the disproportionate use of force by the Russians and the lack of respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia.