TBILISI, Georgia &
Russia ordered a halt to military action in Georgia today, after five days of air and land attacks sent Georgia's army into headlong retreat and left towns and military bases destroyed.
Georgian officials insisted that Russia has continued the bombings despite the pledge, but Russia denied that.
Hours before the Russian announcement, Russian forces bombed the crossroads city of Gori and launched an offensive in the part of separatist Abkhazia still under Georgian control, sending in 135 military vehicles &
including tanks &
and tightening the assault on the beleaguered nation.
Gori was all but deserted late Monday &
most remaining residents and Georgian soldiers fled ahead of a feared Russian onslaught.
In Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's provincial capital, the body of a Georgian soldier lay in the street along with debris and shattered glass. A poster hanging nearby showed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the slogan "Say yes to peace and stability" as South Ossetian separatist fighters launched rockets at a Georgian plane soaring overhead.
More than 2,000 people were reported killed and the death toll was expected to rise, for large areas of Georgia were too dangerous for journalists to enter. Tens of thousands of terrified residents have fled the fighting &
South Ossetians north to Russia, and Georgians west toward the capital of Tbilisi and the country's Black Sea coast.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on national television that Georgia had been punished enough for its attack on South Ossetia. Georgia launched an offensive late Thursday to regain control over the separatist Georgian province, which has close ties to Russia.
"The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized," Medvedev said.
"If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them," he ordered his defense minister at a televised Kremlin meeting.
Russia's foreign minister called for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign and Medvedev said Georgia must pull its troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia &
the two Russian-backed breakaway provinces at the heart of the dispute.
But thousands of Georgians poured out their support for their president at a rally in Tbilisi, crowding a main square and nearby streets as far as the eye could see and holding aloft fluttering red-and-white Georgian flags.
Russian forces opened a second battlefront in western Georgia on Monday, moving deep into Georgian territory from the separatist province of Abkhazia. They seized a military base in the town of Senaki and occupied police precincts in the town of Zugdidi.
Today, an Associated Press reporter counted 135 Russian military vehicles &
included tanks, armored personnel carriers and three pieces of artillery &
driving through Georgia toward Kodori Gorge. The northern part of the gorge is the only part of the separatist region of Abkhazia still held by Georgian forces, but they have come under attack in recent days.
Scores of Georgians have fled the area.
"It feels like an annexed country," said Lasha Margiana, the local administrator in one of the villages in Kodori.
People said that many homes were damaged by shelling and that the entire population of the gorge, some 3,000 people, had left.
"We left when the shelling started, we don't have food," said Madlena Guarmiani, one of the refugees, who said they had no time to pack food or belongings.
Georgia sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets bypassing Russia, has long been a source of contention between the West and a resurgent Russia, which is seeking to strengthen its role as the dominant energy supplier to the continent. The British oil company BP shut down one of three Georgian pipelines as a precaution.
In central Georgia, Russian troops advanced into Georgia from the other separatist province, South Ossetia, taking positions near Gori on the main east-west highway as terrified civilians. Saakashvili said his country had effectively been cut in half.
Gori's post office and university were still burning today, said Georgian officials, who claimed six died in the overnight bombing. RTL television news, a Dutch station, reported that at least five people were killed when Russian warplanes bombed Gori, including its cameraman.
Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Both separatist provinces are backed by Russia. Russian officials had given signals that the fighting could pave the way for them to be absorbed into Russia.
Saakashvili today made plans to shed a vestige of Soviet times, saying he has asked Parliament to take action to leave the Russia-dominated alliance of ex-Soviet nations called the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The situation in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, remained tense today as sporadic fighting and artillery duels continued, but the city was in the control of Russian army and South Ossetian forces.
In the villages once populated by ethnic Georgians on the outskirts of Tskhinvali, South Ossetian fighters reportedly set fire to Georgian houses, and carried out searches in the villages.
As he started talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Medvedev said Georgia must pull its troops from the breakaway regions and pledge not to use force again to solve the conflict.
The U.N. and NATO had called meetings today to deal with the conflict, which quickly developed into an East-West crisis that raised fears in former Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe.
Poland's president and the leaders of four ex-Soviet republics headed to Georgia for a meeting with Saakashvili to send a signal of solidarity with Tbilisi.
"We may say that the Russian state has once again shown its face, its true face," said Poland's Lech Kaczynski, who will be joined by counterparts from Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and Latvia.
But he said it was "good news" that Medvedev ordered a halt to military action.
Russian deputy chief of General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn dismissed Georgian reports that Russian warplanes today again bombed a pipeline carrying crude to the West. He said Russian planes never targeted the pipeline and accused Georgia of spreading false reports in order to rally anti-Russian sentiments in the West.
BP also said the company had no reports of pipeline damage but said the company has shut down the 90,000-barrel-a-day oil pipeline running through Georgia's center from Baku on the Caspian Sea to Supsa on the Black Sea coast.
Nogovitsyn said Russian troops were not in Gori but confirmed they have taken control of an airport in Senaki. Senaki is 30 miles east of Abkhazia.
President Bush had demanded Monday that Russia end a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of violence in Georgia, agree to an immediate cease-fire and accept international mediation.
"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," Bush said in a televised statement from the White House.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said more than 2,000 people have been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, most of them Ossetians with Russian passports.
Associated Press writers Chris Torchia reported from Zugdidi, Georgia; Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia; David Nowak from Gori, Georgia; Douglas Birch from Vladikavkaz, Russia; Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov and Lynn Berry from Moscow; and Pauline Jelinek from Washington.
Russia orders ceasefire
TBILISI, Georgia &