TBILISI, Georgia – Russia ordered a halt to the war in Georgia on Tuesday, after five days of air and land attacks that sent Georgia's army into headlong retreat and left towns, military bases and homes in the U.S. ally smoldering. Georgia insisted that Russian forces were still bombing and shelling.
Despite the televised order by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia launched an offensive Tuesday in Abkhazia, sending tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery toward the breakaway region.
Georgian troops were forced out of their last stronghold in the separatist province, said Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zaitsev, a defense official in Abkhazia. The claim that Georgian forces were gone could not immediately be confirmed.
And hours before the order to stop fighting, Russian jets bombed the crossroads city of Gori, near the separatist region of South Ossetia. Gori's post office and university were burning Tuesday, but the city was all but deserted after most remaining residents and Georgian soldiers fled Monday ahead of a feared Russian onslaught.
In Moscow, Medvedev said Georgia had been punished enough for its attack on South Ossetia. Georgia launched an offensive late Thursday to regain control over the separatist province, which has close ties to Russia.
"The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized," Medvedev said.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, speaking before a crowd of thousands at a Tbilisi square, said the invasion was not because Russia wanted control of the breakaway regions.
"They just don't want freedom and that's why they want to stamp on Georgia and destroy it," he said, as red and white Georgian fluttered.
Tens of thousands of terrified residents have fled the fighting — South Ossetians north to Russia, and Georgians west toward the capital of Tbilisi and east to the country's Black Sea coast.
Both sides have traded accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Russia has accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in the separatist province of South Ossetia. The claim couldn't be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died.
Many Georgians also have been killed in the fighting and on Tuesday, the Georgian security council said it filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice for alleged ethnic cleansing. The overall death toll was expected to rise because large areas of Georgia were still too dangerous for journalists to enter and see the true scope of the damage.
"It feels like an annexed country," said Lasha Margiana, the local administrator in one of the villages in the Kodori Gorge, where fleeing Georgians said the entire population had abandoned their homes.
Zaitsev, the commander in Abkhazia, said only local forces — not Russian ones — were involved in the operation to squeeze out the Georgians. But an AP reporter visiting the village of Chuberi saw 135 Russian military vehicles heading toward the Kodori Gorge. Georgian officials said their troops in the gorge were being attacked by Russians.
Medvedev assailed the West for supporting Georgia in the conflict: "International law doesn't envision double standards."
In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian provincial capital now under Russian control, the body of a Georgian soldier lay in the street along with debris. A poster hanging nearby showed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the slogan "Say yes to peace and stability" as South Ossetian separatist fighters launched rockets at a Georgian plane soaring overhead. Broken glass and other debris littered the ground.
"If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them," Medvedev ordered his defense minister at a televised Kremlin meeting.
U.S. officials were focused primarily on confirming a ceasefire and attending to Georgia's urgent humanitarian needs
"It is very important now that all parties cease fire," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "The Georgians have agreed to a ceasefire, the Russians need to stop their military operations as they have apparently said that they will, but those military operations really do now need to stop because calm needs to be restored."
Russia's foreign minister called for Saakashvili to resign. Medvedev said Georgia must pull its troops from the two Russian-backed breakaway provinces and allow them to decide whether they want to remain part of Russia.
"Ossetians and Abkhaz must respond to that question taking their history into account, including what happened in the past few days," Medvedev said grimly.
Thousands of Georgians poured out their support for their president at a rally in Tbilisi, crowding a main square and nearby streets as far as the eye could see and holding aloft fluttering red-and-white Georgian flags.
Georgia, which is pushing for NATO membership, 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. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Both separatist provinces are backed by Russia, which appears open to absorbing them.
Medvedev said Tuesday that Russian peacekeepers will stay in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Saakashvili said his government will officially designate Russian peacekeepers in those breakaway provinces as occupying forces.
The Russian onslaught angered the West and drew tough words from President Bush, but some Georgians are disappointed that the U.S. did not intervene to protect its tiny ally.
"I'd like to think the words really do matter," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said Tuesday in Tbilisi.
Bryza declined to say if the U.S. would provide military support in the event that Russia expands its operations: "I hope we'll never come to the question of what we do if Russia refuses to observe international law."
Georgia sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets bypassing Russia, has long been a source of contention between the West and a resurgent Russia, the dominant energy supplier to Europe. The British oil company BP shut down one of three Georgian pipelines as a precaution, although the company said it had no evidence the pipelines had suffered damage.
In villages around the South Ossetian provincial capital, separatist fighters reportedly were setting fire to Georgian houses and searching for hidden Georgian fighters.
An AP photographer in the village of Ruisi near South Ossetia saw fresh damage from a Russian air raid that locals said came just 30 minutes before Medvedev's televised statement.
Residents said three villagers were killed and another five wounded when a Russian warplane raided the village. One slain victim, 77-year old Amiran Vardzelashvili, was struck by a fragment in the heart while was working in a field.
The Georgian government said another nearby village, Sakorinto, also was bombed after Medvedev announcing a halt to fighting, as was an ambulance in the Black Sea province of Adzharia.
The U.N. and NATO called meetings Tuesday to deal with the conflict, while Poland's president and the leaders of four former Soviet republics flew to Georgia for a meeting of solidarity with Saakashvili.
"The Russian state has once again shown its face, its true face," said Poland's Lech Kaczynski, who was being joined by counterparts from Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and Latvia.
But he said it was "good news" that Medvedev ordered a halt to the war.
At the White House on Monday, Bush had demanded that Russia end a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of violence in Georgia, agree to an immediate cease-fire and accept international mediation.
"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," Bush said in a televised statement.