Russian military pushes into Georgia
TBILISI, Georgia (CNN) — The Russian military advanced into Georgia on two fronts Monday, heading towards cities outside the breakaway provinces that have been the centers of fighting.
A Georgian armored personnel carriers burns on the road from Gori to Tbilisi.
From the flashpoint South Ossetia, the Russian military moved south towards the central Georgia city of Gori, Georgia said. Russia said its troops were on the outskirts of the city.
A CNN crew in Gori saw Georgian forces piling into trucks and leaving the city at high speed.
CNN saw thousands of troops driving out of the city, as well as thousands of civilians traveling by convoy from Gori toward Tbilisi.
Gori lies along Georgia’s main east-west highway, and is an important site for Georgia’s communication systems.
Russian troops were also in Senaki, in western Georgia, having advanced from Abkhazia, Russian and Georgian officials said.
Russia’s Interfax news agency cited an official with the Russian Defense Ministry saying troops were in Senaki to “prevent attacks by Georgian military units against South Ossetia.” Senaki is home to a Georgian military base.
Georgia’s interior ministry said Russia had also seized control of Zugdidi — a city on the route between Abkhazia and Senaki.
Georgia launched a crackdown Thursday against separatist fighters in South Ossetia. Russia, which supports the separatists and has peacekeepers in the region, sent its military into South Ossetia on Friday.
The Georgian government said it was recalling the army to Tbilisi “to defend the capital.” Watch a report from Gori as Georgian troops pull out »
Russia has not threatened to enter Tbilisi and says its operations are peacekeeping but Georgia fears it’s an invasion.
Monday’s military developments came as Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili said he had signed an internationally-brokered cease-fire proposal that will be taken next to Moscow.
Saakashvili said the cease-fire proposal would be taken to Moscow by the French Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb.
They were to make their way to Moscow on Monday evening after meeting with Georgian officials. Watch as Saakashvilli signs the cease-fire proposal »
A Georgian National Security Council official said the document signed by Saakashvili called for an unconditional cease-fire, a non-use of force agreement, a withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, including the South Ossetia region, and provisions for international peacekeeping and mediation.
Saakashvili said: “We are trying to stop this as soon as possible.”
“We are in the process of invasion, occupation, and annihilation of an independent, democratic country,” he said.
Saakashvili abruptly ended his conference call with reporters Monday saying: “We have to go to the shelter because there are Russian planes flying over the presidential palace here, sorry.”
Video showed a chaotic scene outside the palace, with the president being rushed away under heavy security. Watch Georgia’s president run for cover »
Saakashvili later accused Russia of ethnic cleansing — a charge the Russians have repeatedly leveled at Georgia, and which both sides deny.
He said Georgian troops had downed “18 or 19” Russian warplanes and killed hundreds of Russian troops.
Saakashvili claimed Russia had 500 tanks and 25,000 troops inside Georgia. A Russian defense ministry said only four planes had been lost. Watch more on Russian bombing »
Russia insists it has no interest in interfering with Georgia’s affairs but wants to protect its peacekeepers and the residents of South Ossetia
Russian Defense Ministry Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Georgian troops in South Ossetia were being driven out.
“At the moment, our troops are pushing out, capturing and disarming groups of Georgian law enforcement agencies which have been surrounded in the capital of South Ossetia,” Nogovitsyn said.
“This is a matter of principle,” he said. “The 1992 treaty which Georgia signed, among others, clearly defines the limits of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, and is doesn’t have any tasks of invading the Georgian territory.”
Russia controls the sky
The skies over the breakaway regions and Georgia belonged to the Russians, he said, as the Georgian air force was not flying.
They had “inflicted damage on operational systems, troops and military facilities of Georgia,” but Nogovitsyn denied Russian bombers had attacked a civilian radar installation at the Tbilisi International Airport.
A U.S. military official told CNN that Russian attacks on Georgia — including radars and communication systems — have devastated the country’s command and control system to the point where Georgian leaders may not have a clear idea of the situation on the ground.
A Georgian Foreign Ministry statement said “several dozen Russian bombers” were over Georgia Monday afternoon “intensively bombing Tbilisi, Poti, villages in Adjara, and elsewhere.”
“Overnight, as many as 50 Russian bombers were reported operating simultaneously over Georgia, targeting civilian populations in cities and villages, as well as radio and telecommunications sites,” the statement said.
Colonel-General Nogovitsyn repeated an earlier charge that Georgian troops were engaged in genocide against civilians in South Ossetia, which he said he could “prove to the media.”
“During their mop-up operations in South Ossetia, Georgian commandos have thrown hand grenades into the basements where civilians were hiding,” he said. “That’s what we call genocide.”
South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, lay in smoldering ruins after four days of fighting. Each side accused the other of killing large numbers of civilians. Russia said at least 2,000 people had been killed in Tskhinvali.
Georgia began withdrawing its forces from Tskhinvali early Sunday.
Georgia, a pro-Western ally of the U.S., is intent on asserting its authority over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have strong Russian-backed separatist movements.
The situation in South Ossetia escalated rapidly from Thursday night, when Georgia said it launched an operation into the region after artillery fire from separatists killed 10 people. It accused Russia of backing the separatists.
South Ossetia, which has a population of about 70,000, is inside Georgia but has an autonomous government. Many South Ossetians support unification with North Ossetia, which would make them part of Russia.
Russia supports the South Ossetian government, has given passports to many in South Ossetia, and calls them Russian citizens.