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Europe

Georgians to Leave South Ossetia as Focus Shifts to Black Sea

Georgian officials said Sunday that they are withdrawing their forces from South Ossetia. Russan navy vessels meanwhile arrive at Georgia's Black Sea coast in what could become the next hotspot of the war.

A Russian navy dinghy in front of a navy vessel in the Black Sea

The Russian navy particpated in the military exercise "Caucasus 2008" at the end of July

Georgian National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia told AFP news service on Sunday, Aug. 10, that his country's forces had "practically left" all of South Ossetia "as an expression of good will and our willingness to stop military confrontation."

Georgian and Russian forces had exchanged artillery fire in the early hours of Sunday, Aug. 10, South Ossetia officials said, while Russian planes bombed the runway of a military airfield near Tbilisi international airport according to a Georgian official.

Russia sending more soldiers, ships to Georgian coast

Russian soldiers aboard an armored vehicle on the road to the border with the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008

Moscow and Tbilisi have been unable to agree on a ceasefire deal

Russian warships meanwhile arrived at the Georgian Black Sea coast, according to news reports.

"The navy was ordered not to allow supplies of weapons and military hardware into Georgia by sea," a Russian navy source was quoted as saying by Russian news service Interfax, Reuters reported.

The Russian ships were blocking access to the port for ships carrying grain and fuel, Lomaia told the AFP. He added that Russian planes bombed a military airfield some five kilometers outside the capital Tbilisi.

Georgia said a Russian air raid had "completely devastated" the Black Sea port of Poti in attacks that the country's UN ambassador likened to "a full-scale military invasion"

This was followed up with air raids on Gori, the main Georgian city closest to South Ossetia. Apartment blocks in Gori were left in flames and residents said scores of people were killed.

Georgia : "Annihilation of a democracy"

Georgian soldiers walk in the outskirts of the northern Georgian town of Gori, on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008

Georgia's offensive to take the enclave of South Ossetia has been unsuccessful

Russian bombers also headed for the coast, Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said Saturday after air raids on the port of Poti and the city of Gori, where inhabitants said scores of people were killed.

"What they are doing is nothing to do with conflict, it is about annihilation of a democracy on their borders," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an interview with the BBC.

Saakashvili declared a "state of war" on Saturday but also offered a ceasefire to Russia.

But a meeting of the UN Security Council on Saturday failed to agree on a call for an immediate ceasefire. Russia's ambassador to the UN said Moscow would not agree to a ceasefire until Georgia removed all its troops from South Ossetia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Moscow viewed the Georgian offensive as "something that has elements of genocide and war crimes situation," and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said he would order an investigation of Georgian crimes against civilians.

US Deputy Ambassador Alejandro Wolff made it clear Washington blamed Russia for escalating the fighting.

"This is a conflict that is expanding and getting out of control," he said. "The proximate cause is the massive escalation perpetrated by outside forces."

Conflict widens to Abkhazia

Fears of the conflict spreading added urgency to international calls for a ceasefire.

The conflict spread to Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia, where the separatist government said its forces had launched attacks on Georgian troops. Georgia accused Russia of staging the attacks in the Kodori Gorge region, the only part of Abkhazia controlled by Georgia.

Britain said a joint European-US mission was due to have arrived in Georgia late Saturday to try to help broker a ceasefire with Russia.

"We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops," US President George W. Bush told reporters. "We call for an end to the Russian bombings."

The European Union "strongly states its commitment to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Georgia and its internationally recognized borders and urges Russia to respect them," said a statement released by France, which hold the EU's rotating presidency and said it would host a meeting of EU foreign ministers early next week.

Source of friction

South Ossetia refugees head toward the Russian border near the town of Dzhava, fleeing the fighting in the Georgian breakaway region, South Ossetia, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008

Russia and Georgia disagree on the number of casualties and refugees

Russian and South Ossetian estimates put the death toll on the South Ossetian side at a minimum of 1,400. All but a few of the dead were civilians, according to Moscow. Georgian figures ranged from 82 dead, including 37 civilians, to a total of some 130 dead.

South Ossetia broke from Georgia in the early 1990s. It has been a constant source of friction between Georgia and Russia, which opposes Tbilisi's aspirations of joining NATO and has supported the separatists without recognizing their independence. Russia backs the separatist government in South Ossetia and sent in tanks and troops on Friday in response to pro-Western Georgia's military offensive to take back the province which broke away in the early 1990s after a separatist war.

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