BATUMI, Georgia — Georgian military units pulled back to new positions near Tskhinvali, the capital of breakaway South Ossetia, after a night of heavy Russian bombing, a Georgian official said Sunday. But the move was unlikely to halt an escalating Russian assault on the U.S.-allied former Soviet republic.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called for a ceasefire in an interview Sunday with CNN and said his country would be willing to return its troops to lines they maintained before fighting began on Thursday.
Saakashvili accused the Russians of intentionally targeting civilian populations, including residential neighborhoods in the Georgian capital, Tblisi. He praised the performance of Georgia's military, which he said had shot down "nearly 20" Russian planes, but he said fighting now needed to stop in the face of mounting civilian deaths.
"It's not about troops," he said. "Right now its a real human tragedy and this fighting must stop."
But there was no let up in the Russia assault as aircraft continued to bombard targets inside Georgia and continue to press a multi-pronger attack that included fresh artillery attacks from separatist forces in Georgia's west. Russia's powerful Black Sea fleet moved into position to blockade Georgia's ports to prevent any resupply.
In the west, the rebel province of Abkhazia resumed "massive artillery fire" against Georgian units there, an Abkhaz defense official told Interfax, a Russian state news service. Saakashvili accused the Russians of moving 100 tanks into Abkhazia and said more than 150 Russian tanks had entered South Ossetia.
"That's a bigger tank force than went into Afghanistan or Czechoslovakia," Saakashvili claimed, referring to invasions of those countries by the Soviet Union in 1979 and 1968, respectively.
The repositioning of the Georgian soldiers in Tskhinvali, which Georgia tried to wrest from separatist control in a blitz of rocket and artillery fire beginning Thursday night, might have opened the way for a ceasefire. But Russian officials gave no indication they were interested.
After two days of television news coverage showing defiant Georgian troops pushing into South Ossetia, which has many Russian citizens, and hearing Russian analysts ponder whether Russian soldiers might have a hard time handling the U.S.-trained Georgian military, the Kremlin set out to make a point.
(Mark Seibel in Washington contributed to this report.)
On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Labrov told reporters that his nation was "not in the bargaining businsess." He said that the situation would be resolved only when Georgian forces withdrew completely from the Russian-backed rebel areas and signed a binding non-agression agreement — measures that would be difficult for the Georgian government to accept.
On Sunday, Interfax reported that Georgia had 7,400 troops and about 100 tanks outside Tskhinvali that were under attack by Russian and South Ossetian separatist forces.
In his CNN interview, which showed Saakashvili speaking on a cell phone as he gestured to a map behind him, the Georgian president said troops were not ordered into South Ossetia until the movement of Russian tanks was detected at 11:50 p.m. He asserted that most of South Ossetia had been under Georgian control and said Russian forces were the interlopers.
"How can I invade my own country," he said, saying separatist forces in South Ossetia are "soldiers in the service of the Russian army."
Georgia," he said, is "willing to go back to the status quo ante. But there Russian forces must withdraw."