Nation & World

Ex-Soviet state leaders join Georgian at anti-Russia rally

TBILISI, Georgia — Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and the leaders of five other nations once dominated by the Soviet Union vowed Tuesday never to concede to Russia their nations' hard-won independence.

"The entire world is with us," Saakashvili told a crowd of thousands at a late-night rally in downtown Tbilisi.

On the podium with him were the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine _ members of the Soviet bloc until the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991.

"We know that if other peoples' freedom is threatened then it's not long before our freedom is threatened," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik said.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski brought a roar from the crowd as he pledged never to allow a return to the days when the Soviet Union could have its way militarily with smaller countries on its borders.

"That time has ended forever," Kaczynski said. "We are here to say that we are not afraid."

The rally, just hours after Russia declared it was ending hostilities in Georgia, was an emotional outpouring on a day that Russia appeared to have reasserted old Soviet-style authority over a neighbor. For five days, Russian forces pummeled Georgia from the air, the sea and on land in a multi-pronged assault that was the heaviest use of Russian military might outside its borders in nearly 30 years.

In the end, Georgia's military was left in tatters, and its soldiers had largely abandoned their positions and equipment.

The United States and the European Union seemed powerless to stop the onslaught, though both roundly denounced it. President Bush on Monday called the Russian action "unacceptable."

Then on Tuesday, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev announced that the campaign was ending.

"I have taken the decision to end the operation to force Georgian authorities into peace," he said in a statement.

"The purpose of the operation has been achieved. . . . The aggressor has been punished and has suffered very considerable losses," he said.

He threatened more punishing military strikes, however. "If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them," he told Russian leadership.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia wouldn’t attempt to oust Saakashvili’s pro-Western government. But he suggested the Georgian president should go.

"I don't think Russia will feel like talking with Mr. Saakashvili after what he did to our citizens," Lavrov said. “The best thing would be for him to resign.”

A Russian military leader said the order to stop attacking didn't automatically mean that his forces had been withdrawn.

"If we have received the order to cease fire, this does not mean that we have stopped all actions, including reconnaissance," said Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian General Staff.

That threat of renewed violence led the United States to recommend that American citizens leave Georgia. Many were reported to be ready to evacuate overland to Armenia as early as Wednesday.

Russian planes again struck the town of Gori, which sits between the Georgian region of South Ossetia and Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and helicopters launched missiles at surrounding villages. Smoke could be seen climbing from the area, where helicopters were swooping around a ridgeline and, in red flashes, sending down a rain of missile strikes.

Georgian troops had completely evacuated the route from Gori to Tbilisi overnight, abandoning artillery and troop transports on the side of the road.

On Tuesday, trucks and vans crammed with families sped down the road from Gori to Tbilisi in a rush to escape bloodshed. There were sacks filled with clothes strapped to the rooftops, suitcases jumbled in truck beds, and foam mattresses crammed on top of cooking pans.

In Tbilisi, Georgians were glad to hear that the fighting was mostly over, after days of panic that the Russians would take the capital. But they voiced deep resentments about the war.

"It's like the old Soviet days. They were making an example of us for Ukraine and others to see," said Dato Gorgodze, who was walking back from a rally downtown. "They wanted to demoralize the people."

In Moscow, French President Nicolas Sarkozy — the head of the European Union — met with Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev to propose a peace agreement. Sarkozy said that while the deal wasn't perfect, "what we need is to get out of a crisis. . . . I just want to push people to dialogue."

The proposal reportedly calls for a cease-fire, free access to humanitarian aid, withdrawal of Georgian and Russian forces to their original positions, and discussions about the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway Georgian provinces whose status are at the root of the Russia-Gerogia conflict.

At a news conference, Medvedev said that the South Ossetians and Abkhazians should be asked whether they wanted to remain part of Georgia, a thinly veiled push for their independence.

Russian tanks and infantry poured into Georgia last week after Georgian forces attempted to seize the capital of pro-Russian South Ossetia. Russian air power established dominion over Georgia's skies, and Georgian forces were quickly forced out of South Ossetia.

By Tuesday, Russia controlled both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Russian province, and had seized Georgia's principal Black Sea port and the outskirts of the strategic Georgian town of Gori.

The Russian military said the capital of the South Ossetia region was destroyed and blamed the Georgians.

"Tskhinvali doesn't exist. It's like Stalingrad was after the war," Nogovitsyn said. "Schools, hospital, houses, all infrastructure is ruined. There's no water, no electricity. We will rebuild it."

There was no independent confirmation of the scope of the destruction or whether it was caused by the initial Georgian strikes last week or the fighting since then. Because of the level of violence, and shut roads, it was not possible for journalists to travel to the town independently.

An official Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, quoted Tskhinvali Mayor Robert Guliyev as saying that more than two-thirds of the buildings in the town had been damaged or destroyed.

Half of the city’s 30,000 residents have fled the violence, he said.

What few accounts had surfaced were horrific. Moscow Times quoted one Russian military peacekeeper, Pyotor Bezhov, as saying he saw a tank blow up a car with a family inside.

"There was a mother, father and their two children," the paper quoted Bezhov as saying. "They were all dead. A tank just shot them."

In Gori, the devastation was also massive. Scores of people had been killed in days of bombings, many of them in the last hours of war on Tuesday, after Georgian military forces had vanished from the town.

"They are punishing us," said Nikoloz Kvachatze, a doctor at a main hospital in Tbilisi where many of Gori’s wounded were taken for treatment. "They are punishing us for trying to be independent."

(Lasseter reported from Tbilisi, Thomma from Washington. James Rosen contributed to this report from Washington.)