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Georgia claims Russians have cut country in half
By DAVID NOWAK, Associated Press Writer
GORI, Georgia - Russian forces seized several towns and a military base deep in western Georgia on Monday, opening a second front in the fighting. Georgia's president said his country had been effectively cut in half with the capture of the main east-west highway near Gori .
Fighting also raged Monday around Tskhinvali , the capital of the separatist province of South Ossetia . Russian warplanes launched new air raids across Georgia , with at least one sending screaming civilians running for cover.
The reported capture of the key Georgian city of Gori and the towns of Senaki, Zugdidi and Kurga came despite a top Russian general's claim earlier Monday that Russia had no plans to enter Georgian territory. By taking Gori, which sits on Georgia's only east-west highway, Russia can cut off eastern Georgia from the country's western Black Sea coast.
"(Russian forces) came to the central route and cut off connections between western and eastern Georgia," Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told a national security meeting.
The news agency Interfax, however, cited a Russian Defense Ministry official as denying Gori was captured. Attempts to reach Gori residents by telephone late Monday did not go through.
Security Council head Alexander Lomaia said Monday it was not immediately clear if Russian forces would advance on Tbilisi , the Georgian capital. But the Russian Defense Ministry denied such intentions, the Interfax and RIA-Novosti news agencies said.
At Georgia's request, U.N. Security Council in New York called an emergency session for later Monday - the fifth meeting on the fighting in as many days.
The two-front battlefield was a major escalation in the conflict that blew up late Thursday after a Georgian offensive to regain control of the separatist province of South Ossetia. Even as Saakashvili signed a cease-fire pledge Monday with EU mediators, Russia flexed its military muscle and appeared determined to subdue the small U.S. ally that has been pressing for NATO membership.
On Monday afternoon, Russian troops invaded Georgia from the western separatist province of Abkhazia while most Georgian forces were busy with fighting in the central region around South Ossetia.
Russian armored personnel carriers moved into Senaki, a town 20 miles inland from Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti, Lomaia said. Russian news agencies late Monday cited the Defense Ministry as saying the troops had left Senaki "after liquidating the danger," but did not give details.
Russian forces also moved into Zugdidi, near Abkhazia, and seized police stations, while their Abkhazian allies took control of the nearby village of Kurga, according to witnesses and Georgian officials.
In Zugdidi, an AP reporter saw five or six Russian soldiers posted outside an Interior Ministry building. Several tanks and other armored vehicles were moving through the town but the streets were nearly deserted, with shops, restaurants and banks all shut down.
In the city of Gori , an AP reporter heard artillery fire and Georgian soldiers warned locals to get out because Russian tanks were approaching. Hundreds of terrified residents fled toward Tbilisi using any means of transport they could find. Many stood along the road trying to flag down passing cars.
An APTV film crew saw Georgian tanks and military vehicles speeding along the road from Gori to Tbilisi. Firing began and people ran for cover. A couple of cars could be seen in flames along the side of the road.
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. Both provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s - and both have close ties with Moscow.
Georgia began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia late Thursday with heavy shelling and air strikes that ravaged South Ossetia's provincial capital of Tskhinvali .
The Russia response was swift and overpowering - thousands of troops that shelled the Georgians until they fled Tskhinvali on Sunday, and four days of bombing raids across Georgia.
Yet Georgia's pledge of a cease-fire rang hollow Monday. An AP reporter saw a small group of Georgian fighters open fire on a column of Russian and Ossetian military vehicles outside Tskhinvali, triggering a 30-minute battle. The Russians later said all the Georgians were killed.
Another AP reporter was in the village of Tkviavi, 7 1/2 miles south of Tskhinvali inside Georgia, when a bomb from a Russian Sukhoi warplane struck a house. The walls of neighboring buildings fell as screaming residents ran for cover. Eighteen people were wounded.
Georgian artillery fire was heard coming from fields about 200 yards away from the village, perhaps the bomber's target.
Hundreds of Georgian troops headed north Monday along the road toward Tskhinvali, pocked with tank regiments creeping up the highway into South Ossetia. Hundreds of other soldiers traveled via trucks in the opposite direction, towing light artillery weapons.
President Bush and other Western leaders have sharply criticized Russia 's military response as disproportionate and say Russia appears to want the Georgian government overthrown. They have also complained that Russian warplanes - buzzing over Georgia since Friday - have bombed Georgian oil sites and factories far from the conflict zone.
The world's seven largest economic powers urged Russia to accept an immediate cease-fire Monday and agree to international mediation. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her colleagues from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations spoke by telephone and pledged their support for a negotiated solution to the conflict.
"I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia," Bush told NBC Sports.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized the United States for viewing Georgia as the victim, instead of the aggressor, and for airlifting Georgian troops back home from Iraq on Sunday.
"Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shiite villages," Putin said in Moscow . "And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed ten Ossetian villages at once, who ran elderly people and children with tanks, who burned civilian alive in their sheds - these leaders must be taken under protection."
The U.S. military was flying Georgian troops back home from Iraq and informed the Russians about the flights ahead of time to avoid mishaps, said one military official said Monday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the subject on the record.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said Monday morning that U.S. officials expect to have all Georgian troops out of Iraq by the end of the day.
Pentagon officials said Monday that U.S. military was assessing the fighting every day to determine whether less than 100 U.S. trainers should be pulled out of the country.
There had been about 130 trainers, including a few dozen civilian contractors, but the civilians had been scheduled to rotate out of the country and did so over the weekend, Whitman said. The remaining uniformed trainers were moved the weekend to what officials believe is a safer location, he said.
Whitman said he didn't know whether the civilian trainers were among the 170 that the State Department said it had evacuated.
Saakashvili signed a cease-fire pledge Monday proposed by the French and Finnish foreign ministers. The EU envoys headed to Moscow to try to persuade Russia to accept it.
Saakashvili, however, voiced concern that Russia's true goal was to undermine his pro-Western government. "It's all about the independence and democracy of Georgia," he said.
Saakashvili said Russia has sent 20,000 troops and 500 tanks into Georgia . He said Russian warplanes were bombing roads and bridges, destroying radar systems and targeting Tbilisi 's civilian airport. One Russian bombing raid struck the Tbilisi airport area only a half-hour before the EU envoys arrived, he said.
Another hit near key Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which carries Caspian crude to the West. No supply interruptions have been reported.
Abkhazia's separatists declared Sunday they would push Georgian forces out of the northern part of the Kodori Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian control.
Before invading western Georgia, Russia's deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn demanded Monday that Georgia disarm its police in Zugdidi, a town just outside Abkhazia . Still he insisted "We are not planning any offensive."
At least 9,000 Russian troops and 350 armored vehicles were in Abkhazia, according to a Russian military commander.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said more than 2,000 people have been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, most of them Ossetians with Russian passports. The figures could not be independently confirmed, but refugees who fled Tskhinvali over the weekend said hundreds had been killed.
Many found shelter in the Russian province of North Ossetia.
" The Georgians burned all of our homes," said one elderly woman, as she sat on a bench under a tree with three other white-haired survivors. "The Georgians say it is their land. Where is our land, then?"
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.