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Europe

Russia Sets Up Black Sea Blockade as Caucasus War Widens

Russia on Sunday intensified airstrikes and a naval blockade against Georgia, as international diplomats sought ways to bring a ceasefire to the Caucasus province South Ossetia.

Two Russian solders with their faces covered sit on a tank

Russian soldiers have reportedly taken control of South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali

Three Russian air force Su-25 bombers struck an airfield adjacent to a military aircraft factory outside the Georgian capital Tbilisi shortly after dawn, causing damage but inflicting no casualties, a senior Georgian official said.

Russian bombers also struck a Georgian military base near the town of Bolnisi and in the remote Kodori valley near the border of Abkhazia. UN observers quit the gorge later in the day, according to Rustaveli-2 and Vesti-24 television reports.

Abkhazia mobilizes troops

The war widened on Saturday with Abkhazia, like South Ossetia a separatist Georgian province supported by Moscow, attacking Georgian forces.

Abkhazia's leader, Sergei Bagapsh, said on Sunday he had sent 1,000 troops to the disputed Kodori gorge and announced the mobilization of reservists to reinforce its positions, Reuters news agency reported.

"We are ready to act independently," he told reporters. "We are ready to enforce order and go further if there is resistance from the Georgian side."

David vs. Goliath?

Warships from Russia's Black Sea fleet by Sunday morning had clamped down a naval blockade on Georgia's coastline, turning back "several civilian ships," said Aleksander Lomaia, Georgia's National Security Council Chief, in a statement.

Map of Georgia and the region

Among freighters halted with warning shots was a Moldovan-flagged vessel carrying wheat to the port Poti, threatening Georgia's food supplies, Lomaia claimed.

Georgian intelligence gave the elements of the Russian squadron as three amphibious assault vessels, two anti-submarine warfare vessels, a reconnaissance ship, two minesweepers, two missile boats, and a missile cruiser.

The Russian flotilla is substantially larger than Georgia's tiny navy, currently bottled up in Poti.

Georgians relocate

The site of the fiercest ground fighting over the last three days, the unofficial South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, saw infantry battles throughout the night as Russian forces engaged Georgian

troops holding heights overlooking the town.

Aleksander Lomaia, Georgia's National Security Council chief, called the retreat "a relocation to other positions."

Heavy artillery fire on the city, a feature of fighting since the war's outbreak, had practically halted by early Sunday morning, according to a South Ossetia army statement.

US-Russian conflict?

The international community has failed to produce any practical means towards reaching a ceasefire in the four-day-old conflict. Volodymyr Ohryzko, Ukraine's Foreign Minister, flew into Tbilisi on Sunday morning. His mission was to act, if possible, as an intermediary in dialogue between the Russian and Georgian government, according to a Ukraine Foreign Ministry statement.

Russia's government was by the weekend moving quickly towards establishing even tighter links with the South Ossetia regime, with Putin announcing Moscow would spend a half billion dollars to rebuild Tskhinvali, and provincial Russian agencies offering aid to an estimated 34,000 refugees from the fighting.

Russia not only would provide the refugees food and shelter, but make sure that children now living in temporary housing or with relatives on the Russian side of the border, would start their school year on time, Putin said during a Sunday visit to the Russian city Gorkiy.

Georgia on Saturday said it was recalling a 2,000-man infantry brigade currently serving in Iraq and accounted the Georgian army's most effective fighting force. Its return home would, however, be problematic, with a Russian blockade likely to prevent shipment of the brigade's heavy equipment home by sea, and the Russian air force potentially able to intercept any passenger flight from Iraq to Georgia.

Georgian media reported that US aircraft might carry the Georgian infantrymen home, placing Washington and Moscow on a collision course.

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