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Russian President Orders Halt To Military Operations In Georgia

A Georgian armored personnel carrier burns as fleeing Georgian troops come under Russian rocket fire on a road outside Gori on August 11.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a halt to military operations in Georgia, after five days of fighting and just before French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to hold peace talks in Moscow.

"I have made a decision to end the operation to force the Georgian authorities to peace. The goals of the operation have been achieved," he said. "The safety of our peacekeeping forces and the civilian population has been established. The aggressor has been punished and has suffered significant losses. Its armed forces are disorganized.

"Nevertheless," he continued, "if there are little pockets of opposition and other aggressive manifestations, we will make a decision to liquidate them."

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told Reuters just after the announcement that Tbilisi needs more evidence to confirm that military operations have ended, and remains "prepared for everything."

"Everyone in this situation needs a signed binding agreement," he told the news agency.

The news came shortly after reports that Russian aircraft had renewed attacks on the central Georgian town of Gori, and after U.S. President George W. Bush strongly condemned Moscow's actions.

Reuters said at least five people were killed in the Russian bombings in Gori. Georgian television said the central square of the city was hit and that university buildings in the city are on fire.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said his country had been effectively cut in half with the capture of the main east-west highway near Gori.

Meanwhile, separatist forces in Abkhazia have reportedly launched an offensive to dislodge Georgian forces from a strategic gorge in the west of the region.

Russian media reports quoted Abkhaz officials as saying separatist forces have surrounded Georgian troops in the upper part of the Kodori Gorge.

"Our goal is to free the Kodori Gorge of Georgian troops," Abkhazia's Sergei Shamba said by telephone from Abkhazia's Black Sea capital, Sukhumi. "Today the assault begins. It is a high-mountain operation."

Shamba, the separatist region's foreign minister, said preparatory artillery fire began on August 11 to soften Georgian-held positions at the head of the Tbilisi-held gorge.

"We are entering a new stage with about 3,000 troops with artillery, aviation, and infantry reinforcements," Shamba told Reuters.

'Reverse Course'

In Washington on August 11, U.S. President George W. Bush used his toughest language yet to warn Russia to reverse course in Georgia and accept international mediation to end the crisis.

"Russia's government must respect Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty," Bush said in Washington, shortly after returning from the Olympic Games in Beijing. "The Russian government must reverse the course it appears to be on and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward resolving this conflict."

Georgian conflict zones - Abkhazia and South Ossetia (click to enlarge)
Bush said there appeared to be an attempt by Russia to topple Saakashvili.

Speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden of the White House after meeting with his National Security Council, Bush also said he had seen what he called "accurate reports" that Russian forces might be planning to bomb the civilian airport near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Such a move, he warned, would constitute "a dramatic and brutal escalation" of the conflict and betray assurances Russia had given the United States that it was only interested in restoring the situation in the disputed province of South Ossetia to the status quo before fighting began on August 6.

Bush said Russia had already crossed the line -- both literally and figuratively.

"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state, and threatens a democratic government elected by its people," he said. "Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century."

Bush called on Russia to "be true to its word and to act to end this crisis" but cautioned that it had already damaged its international reputation.

"Russia's actions this week have raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region," Bush said. "These actions have substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world. And these actions jeopardize Russia's relations with the United States and Europe."

'Carefully Optimistic'

The United States and its allies are pressing Russia to accept an immediate cease-fire with Georgia and agree to international mediation over the crisis in Georgia's separatist areas.

The chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said he is "carefully optimistic" that Russia will agree to a peace plan for South Ossetia drafted by the European Union and the OSCE. It calls for an immediate truce, respect for Georgia's territorial integrity, and a return to the status quo that prevailed before last week.

Russia's Sergei Lavrov (right) speaking with Finnish counterpart Alexander Stubb in Moscow
Alexander Stubb, who is also the Finnish foreign minister, said his optimism has grown after talks with Russian officials in Moscow in the past two days.

At a news conference following a meeting with Stubb, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow has "no trust" in the current leadership of Georgia, but said Russia has no intention of toppling Saakashvili.

"It is not in our traditions to topple anyone or put someone on a throne," Lavrov said.

Lavrov also said Moscow could not agree with a peace proposal by European Union and OSCE mediators if it included the presence of Georgian troops in any new peacekeeping unit.

"We can hardly agree with this because it would assume the presence of people described as Georgian peacekeepers. They can no longer remain," Lavrov said. "They brought shame on themselves as peacekeepers. They committed crimes and shot at comrades with whom they served in the same peacekeeping unit."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, has flown to Moscow to discuss the peace plan with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

with additional agency reporting

Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Video of the fighting in Georgia's breakaway regions, and the latest efforts to end the conflict (Reuters video). Play

For full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here.
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