US calls on Russia to halt attacks, withdraw as conflict rages
WASHINGTON - The United States urged Russia yesterday to halt aircraft and missile attacks in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia and withdraw its combat forces from Georgian territory as the situation in the former Soviet state verged on full-scale war.
The White House said President Bush discussed the situation with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin while both leaders were in Beijing for the start of the Olympics. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the parties involved in hopes of ending the fighting, and made plans to send a US envoy to the region.
"The United States calls for an immediate ceasefire to the armed conflict in Georgia's region of South Ossetia," Rice said in a statement. "We call on Russia to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgia's territorial integrity and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil."
Rice also said Russia should respect Georgian sovereignty and agree to international mediation to end the crisis that threatens to engulf the volatile region. "We urgently seek Russia's support of these efforts," she said.
Rice said she and other senior US officials had been in touch with "the parties" to the conflict but did not identify to whom they had spoken. In Moscow, Russia's foreign ministry said Rice had talked to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov told her that Georgia must be convinced to withdraw its forces from South Ossetia, it said.
US-allied Georgia launched a surprise military offensive to retake South Ossetia earlier yesterday, reportedly killing hundreds of people and triggering a ferocious counterattack from Russia, which has sent tanks across the border and reportedly bombed Georgian air bases.
In Beijing, White House press secretary Dana Perino urged "all parties, Georgians, South Ossetians and Russians, to de-escalate the tension and avoid conflict" and "restart their dialogue." She said Bush was getting regular updates on the situation.
A US official in Washington identified the envoy as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, a specialist on the region, who will be traveling soon to Tbilisi and elsewhere with European diplomats in a bid to defuse the situation.
Pentagon officials said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has reached out to his counterparts in Russia and Georgia, but has not yet connected with them.
Vasil Sikharulidze, Georgia's ambassador to Washington, said in an interview, "We are asking our friends, and the United States among them, to somehow to try to mediate and try to persuade Russia to stop this military aggression and invasion of Georgia."
At a luncheon for world leaders in Beijing, Bush talked to Putin about the fighting, a White House spokesman said, without giving details.
Defense Department officials have had some contact with Georgian authorities, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday, adding that the United States is monitoring the situation closely. Whitman said Georgia has not requested any US assistance, but he would not provide details on discussions that have occurred.
According to Whitman, the United States has about 130 trainers in Georgia, including a few dozen civilians who are working to prepare the Georgian forces for their next deployment to Iraq. He said all of those US trainers have been accounted for, none has been injured, and there are no plans to pull them out of the country.
He said the trainers are in the Tbilisi area, but would not say exactly where.
Both major US presidential candidates also weighed in.
Republican John McCain said Russia should immediately withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.
"What is most critical now is to avoid further confrontation between Russian and Georgian military forces. The consequences for Euro-Atlantic stability and security are grave," he said, calling for the international community "to establish a truly independent and neutral peacekeeping force in South Ossetia."
Democrat Barack Obama said Georgia and Russia must show restraint and avoid a full-scale war.
"All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia," he said in a statement.