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Europe

Russia Accuses Georgia of Aggression as EU Sends Mediators

Russian Prime Minister Putin urged neighboring Georgia to immediately stop "aggression" against the breakaway region of South Ossetia as the EU and US stepped in with a mediation initiative.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairing a meeting in Vladikavkaz

Putin flew to North Ossetia from Beijing, where he attended the opening of the Olympics

"From a legal point of view, Russia's actions in South Ossetia are totally legitimate," Putin told the state-run Vesti-24 channel from the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz, located next to the separatist Georgian region.

"We urge the Georgian authorities to immediately stop their aggression against South Ossetia, to stop all violations of all standing agreements on a ceasefire and to respect the legal rights and interests of other people."

Interfax news agency reported Putin flew from Beijing, where he attended the opening of the Olympic Games, to North Ossetia in Russia, to discuss the influx of refugees who are fleeing from across the border after two days of fighting between Georgian troops, separatists and Russian forces.

Russian officials said that some 34,000 people fleeing from the region had entered Russian territory.

Residents of the Russian region of North Ossetia share a common language and culture with residents of South Ossetia -- which broke away from Georgian control in the 1990s.

Western officials to seek a ceasefire

A combined European Union, US and NATO delegation is to travel to Georgia to try to broker a ceasefire in the fighting between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Britain's Defence Secretary said on Saturday.

A child aboard a bus waits to be registered as a refugee at the border between Russia and the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia

Thousands of refugees have crossed the Georgian-Russian border

Des Browne told Sky News that the delegation, which will also include representatives of OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will go to the Caucasus republic on Saturday evening.

"We need an immediate ceasefire, we will call both sides to exercise restraint," said the minister.

The foreign ministers of Europe are likely to discuss the Russia-Georgia issue at an informal meeting in Paris on Monday, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Saturday in Stockholm.

Bildt told the TT news agency that he expected a "very strong reaction" from the EU.

A vote on the issue might be held at a formal meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels later in the week, Bildt said.

An act of aggression

In a statement released by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs on Saturday, Bildt described the Russian military operation as "an act of aggression that is incompatible with international law and fundamental principles of security and cooperation in Europe."

South Ossetian resident stands inside his home, which was destroyed by a Georgian strike

Civilian causalties are on the rise

He called for the withdrawal of Russian forces and the establishment of political contacts to bring about a peaceful solution to the crisis.

At least 2,000 civilians have died in the South Ossetia as a result of fighting between Russian and Georgian forces, Russia's ambassador to Georgia told the Interfax news agency on Saturday.

Georgian officials have denied Russian casualty figures, claiming they were blown out of proportion.

Georgian television showed images of hundreds of rockets and heavy artillery shells crashing into the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali. Shelling reduced entire city blocks to rubble, according to eyewitnesses.

Eyewitnesses said many Tskhinvali victims lost their lives when caught out in the open by artillery fire as they attempted to flee. Georgian television showed images of corpses sprawled along sidewalks and streets, in some cases still holding luggage.

A widening of fighting

Russian soldiers aboard an armored vehicle on the road to the border with the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia

Russia claims it is on a peace-keeping mission to protect its citizens

Russian airstrikes ranged widely across Georgia throughout the day, with Su-25 and Tu-22 aircraft, among other types, hitting in and outside South Ossetia.

Targets bombed or rocketed by Russian aircraft in dozens of sorties included, reportedly, oil pipelines, airfields, and military bases in the towns Vaziani, Gori, and Senaki, according to a Georgia government statement.

Gori was hit a second time in as many days. Errant Russian bombs killed at least 20 Gori residents, Georgia's national television channel reported.

Russian bombers also hit Georgia's only oil terminal in the Black Sea port Poti, destroying "almost everything" and leaving the installation in flames, the Interfax news agency reported.

A strike of 12 jets hit the Kodori Gorge, a disputed region in Georgia's west, Lomaia said. Alekasandr Bagapsh, the leader of Abkhazia, a separatist province to Georgia's east, claimed responsibility for the attack, and said Abkhazian ground forces were attacking in the mountainous vallery.

Bagapsh's announcement marked a dramatic widening of fighting in the region, as it opened a new front of combat to the west of South Ossetia.

Who will stop first?

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Saturday called on the Russians to agree on an immediate ceasefire to fighting in South Ossetia after saying earlier that his country was in a state of war.

But the Kremlin issued a statement saying that a pullout of Georgian troops from the conflict zone was the only solution to the ongoing crisis.

"The Russian president has specifically stressed that the only way out from the tragic crisis provoked by the Georgian leadership is a withdrawal by Tbilisi of its armed formations from the conflict zone," the Kremlin press release said.

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