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U.S. Official Faults Russia for Violent Conflict in Georgia

Russia's use of overwhelming military force against Georgia, including strategic bombers and ballistic missiles, is disproportionate to any threat from the former Soviet state and could escalate tensions in the volatile region, a senior U.S. official said Saturday.

The Bush administration official, who briefed reporters on condition his name not be used because of the sensitive nature of the situation, said Russia has attacked areas in Georgia that are far away from the separatist province of South Ossetia, where the fighting has centered. The official also said the Russian military is striking civilian targets.

"They have employed strategic bombers — the most potent air weaponry that is in the Russian arsenal .... They actually launched ballistic missile attacks on Georgian territory," the official said. He also said Russia has sent more than 1,000 paratroopers and armor into the region.

Russian bombing has also taken place in Abkhazia, a separate breakaway region of Georgia, far from South Ossetia, the official said.

"This is a dangerous escalation in the crisis," the official said. Russia's military response "marks a severe escalation and is being conducted in areas far, far from the South Ossetia zone of conflict, which is where the Russian side has said it needed to protect its citizens and peacekeepers. So the response has been far disproportionate to whatever threat Russia had been citing."

The U.S. official also scolded Moscow for stymieing attempts at mediation and refusing a cease-fire offer from Georgia.

"The Georgians have offered a cease-fire. The response by the Russians has been to step up the attacks, continue bombing civilians with strategic air assets and then to reject the notion of any international mediation at all — it's very difficult for us to understand that," the official said. "It is simply not acceptable that anyone would reject an offer of a cease-fire and a plea for international mediation."

The official criticized Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for suggesting Georgia was conducting "genocide" in South Ossetia.

"Those are some pretty powerful words that are really not helping us to end the violence and bring together a new process that can resolve the conflict," the official said. "The line we're hearing right now (from Russia) is quite tough."

President George W. Bush, in Beijing for the Olympics, spoke with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday.

"The violence is endangering regional peace, civilian lives have been lost and others are endangered. We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops. We call for an end to the Russian bombings," a grim Bush told reporters. He did not take any questions.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked with several European counterparts and planned to meet with the Russia's acting ambassador.

Families and dependents of U.S. Embassy personnel in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, were expected to receive permission to evacuate.

The U.S. official suggested Russia was looking for a way to draw Georgia into a conflict because Moscow wants to keep Georgia out of NATO.

Georgia, which borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia angered Russia by seeking NATO membership — a bid Moscow regards as part of a Western effort to weaken its influence in the region.

Russia wants to "keep Georgia kind of weak and off balance and to make it hard for Georgia to join NATO," the official said.

However, he said the United States and its NATO allies will not be drawn militarily into the Russian-Georgian conflict.

"This is a very localized conflict ... There is not a danger of a regional conflict at all in our minds," the official said.

Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq and is the third-largest contributor to coalition forces after the U.S. and Britain. The Georgian government has called home those troops, and efforts are under way now to determine how the U.S. will transport those troops to Georgia, the official said.