South Ossetian bloodshed claims hundreds of lives
The breakaway republic is calling on the world community to recognise it as an independent state. Meanwhile, Moscow says Russian artillery and tanks have now suppressed the Georgian firing positions around Tskhinvali.
At least 12 Russian peacekeepers have died as a result of the violence and 50 have been injured.
Tskhinvali is said to be in ruins after a day of violence. South Ossetia has called Georgia's attacks ‘genocide’.
Thousands of refugees from the self-proclaimed republic have arrived in Russia, according to the country's Migration Service.
Georgia launched a major military offensive against South Ossetia on Friday in a bid to regain control of its breakaway province. Heavy artillery pounded the capital Tskhinvali for hours, reportedly reducing much of the city to rubble.
South Ossetia then appealed to Moscow for help.
Russia’s Defence Ministry has been quoted as saying Georgian troops have killed civilians captured during fighting.
President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered Russia's emergencies ministry to supply humanitarian aid to those injured in South Ossetia. He said Russia will protect its citizens in South Ossetia at all costs, as tension between Georgia and its breakaway region broke into heavy violence.
“It is my duty as president of the Russian Federation to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they may be,” Medvedev said on Friday.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev
The actions of the Georgian side led to deaths – among them are Russian peacekeepers. The situation reached the point that Georgian peacekeepers have been shooting at Russian peacekeepers. Now women, children and old people are dying in South Ossetia – most of them are citizens of the Russian Federation. According to the constitution, I, as the President of the Russian Federation, must protect lives and the dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are. Those responsible for the deaths of our citizens will be punished.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, currently on a visit to Beijing for the start of the Olympics, warned that Georgia's actions would meet a “response.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has claimed there is evidence of ethnic cleansing in villages in South Ossetia.
Lavrov also said the latest developments in South Ossetia cast doubts over Georgia's status as a responsible member of the international community.
He called last night’s events and “an aggression”.
“Georgian peacekeepers, who were part of the same contingent with the Russian peacekeepers were firing at their comrades. It was absolutely unacceptable to see residential quarters shelled, to see a humanitarian convoy that was trying to reach the people in need bombed from the air. And many villages, including those outside the zone of conflict, are being attacked by the Georgian troops using artillery, tanks,” he said.
The Transport Ministry has announced the suspension of all commercial air services between Russia and Georgia from midnight on Friday.
Meanwhile, Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili has announced a general military mobilization in his address to the nation on Friday. He urged all reservists to report to duty.
He has accused Russia of bombing Georgian territory, a charge which Moscow denies.
“During the whole day, Russian jet planes have been continuously attacking Georgian towns – I have to stress, outside the conflict zone. They have been continuously attacking the town of Gori in the middle of Georgian that has nothing to do with South Ossetia. They have been attacking villages all around Georgia,” he said.
Elsewhere, the head of Georgia’s national Security Council said: “If Russia indeed sent its troops to Georgian territory, it means we are at war with Russia.”
And according to the Georgian Interior Ministry, Russian aircraft have dropped two bombs near the Vaziani military airbase in a Tbilisi suburb. No injuries have been reported.
Refugees have been fleeing the region since fighting began early on Friday.
Residents in Tskhinvali say the attack caught them by surprise. Vadim Bagaev told RT that the city was burning in clouds of thick black smoke.
“Around midnight, massive shooting began. They appeared to have more long-range weapons and we were not able to resist. We had to fall back. When I was leaving the city – half of it was occupied by the Georgians,” he said.
“A lot of the buildings are ruined and are on fire. The whole city is clouded with black smoke. It’s impossible to count the casualties, but I think it’s in the hundreds,” Bagaev said.
Russia's Federal Migration Service says it’s ready to receive refugees from the hostilities.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, standby troops have been gathering casually in the capital Tbilisi, in a seemingly relaxed mood. Some of them were reported to have been called to sign up straight from work on Friday afternoon. Reservists have been similarly called up in other Georgian towns and cities.