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Russian tanks 'rolling into Georgian breakaway'
Georgia's president said Friday that his country is under attack from Russian tanks and warplanes, and he accused Russia of targeting civilian populations as tensions over the breakway Georgian region of South Ossetia appeared to boil over into full-blown conflict.
"All day today they've been bombing Georgia from numerous warplanes and specifically targeting (the) civilian population, and we have scores of wounded and dead among (the) civilian population all around the country," Mikhail Saakashvili told CNN in an exclusive interview.
Saakashvili also said Georgian troops had shot down two Russian aircraft.
Asked whether Georgia and Russia were now at war, he said, "My country is in self-defense against Russian aggression. Russian troops invaded Georgia."
Russian television showed a convoy of Russian tanks and said they were heading into the South Ossetia region.
The move came after Russia denounced as "aggressive" a Georgian troops military offensive to regain control over the province, vowing to respond.
Russian authorities earlier said several of its peacekeepers died in a Georgian attack in South Ossetia, which borders Russia and has strong ties to its vast northern neighbor, and they vowed not to leave Russian citizens in the territory unprotected.
"The Georgian leadership has launched a dirty adventure," a statement from Russia's Defense Ministry said on Friday. "We will not leave our peacekeepers and Russian citizens unprotected."
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Georgia started the fighting and warned that Russia would respond to their actions.
"Heavy weapons and artillery have been sent there, and tanks have been added. Deaths and injuries have been reported, including among Russian peacekeepers," Putin said in comments carried Friday by Russia's Interfax news agency.
"It's all very sad and alarming. And, of course, there will be a response."
Earlier Friday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said in a televised statement that Russian aircraft bombed several Georgian villages and other civilian facilities.
He added that there were injuries and damage to buildings. "A full-scale aggression has been launched against Georgia," he said.
A Georgian official reported that seven people were hurt in the attack, the Associated Press said.
Saakashvili urged Russia to immediately stop bombing Georgian territory. "Georgia will not yield its territory or renounce its freedom," he said.
He also called for the full-scale mobilization of Georgian reserve forces as fighting continued to rage in South Ossetia's capital.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer issued a statement Friday saying he was seriously concerned about the recent events in the region, and called on "all sides to end armed clashes and begin direct talks."
The United States also urged all sides to bring an immediate end to the violence. "The U.S. has been in discussions for many months with all parties to find a peaceful resolution," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
"We urge all sides to refrain from violence and to begin direct talks."
Russian peacekeepers are in South Ossetia under a 1992 agreement by Russian, Georgian, and South Ossetian authorities to maintain what has been a fragile peace. The mixed peacekeeping force also includes Georgian and South Ossetian troops.
The latest events came just hours after the U.N. Security Council finished an emergency session to discuss a dramatic escalation of violence in Georgia and South Ossetia. The session ended Friday morning without a statement about the fighting.
Violence has been mounting in the region in recent days, with sporadic clashes between Georgian forces and South Ossetian separatists. South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, but its independence is not internationally recognized.
Georgian troops launched new attacks in South Ossetia late Thursday after a top government official said a unilateral cease-fire offer was met with separatist artillery fire.
"The objective of the operation is to protect the civilian population, to ensure their security and then convince the separatists that there is not a military solution to this conflict," said Alexander Lomaia, the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council.
Lomaia said Georgian troops were responding proportionately to separatist mortar and artillery attacks on two villages -- attacks he said followed the cease-fire and call for negotiations by Saakashvili.
The official news agency of the South Ossetian government reported heavy shelling in the territory's capital, Tskhinvali, that left dozens of buildings ablaze.
About 2,000 Georgian troops attempted to storm Tskhinvali overnight and were regrouping south of the city, according to Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency.
Around 10 a.m. Friday, Georgia said Russian military aircraft violated Georgian airspace and dropped two bombs on Kareli, a part of Georgia that is about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Tblisi, and is not in the conflict zone, said Shota Utiashvili, spokesman for the Georgian Ministry of Interior.
Georgia, located on the Black Sea coast between Russia and Turkey, has been split by Russian-backed separatist movements in South Ossetia and another region, Abkhazia.
Georgian and South Ossetian negotiators had been scheduled to meet Friday in Tskhinvali, Moscow's chief negotiator, Yuri Popov, told the Russian news agency Interfax.
Saakashvili announced Thursday night that he had ordered his troops to cease fire while the negotiators met, but Lomaia said the call was met with more attacks.
In addition, Lomaia said, hundreds of "mercenaries" -- or "volunteers," as the South Ossetians described them -- are pouring across the border from Russia to join the fight.