WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President George W. Bush sharply warned Russia to end its war in Georgia, saying a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of the bloody fighting could cripple Moscow's ties to the West.
In his strongest condemnation yet of violence that began late last week, Bush on Monday charged that Moscow may be aiming to overthrow the former Soviet republic's pro-Western government led by President Mikheil Saakashvili.
"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 hastily announced statement at the White House.
The US president, emerging from a crisis meeting with his national security team, urged Moscow to accept a Europe-backed peace plan calling for an immediate ceasefire and the pull-back of forces on all sides.
"Russia's government must respect Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Russian government must reverse the course it appears to be on and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward resolving this conflict," he said.
Russia pushed its tanks and troops into pro-Moscow South Ossetia Friday in response to Georgia's August 6 launch of a two-day military offensive to take back the province, which broke away in the early 1990s after a separatist war.
"Russia's actions this week have raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. These actions have substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world. And these actions jeopardize Russia's relations with the United States and Europe," Bush warned.
"I am deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori and are threatening Georgia's capital of Tbilisi. There's evidence that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city," said Bush.
"It now appears that an effort may be under way to depose (Georgia's) duly elected government," he said.
"If these reports are accurate, these Russian actions would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia" and would be "inconsistent" with Moscow's pledges that it only seeks to restore the status quo in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia before fighting began on August 6, he said.
At the United Nations, however, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said his Russian colleague Vitaly Churkin had told him during closed-door Security Council consultations that toppling Saakashvili "was not the goal of the Russian federation."
Churkin said Russia could not accept a UN truce draft, agreed by Western diplomats Monday after the UN Security Council met for the fifth time in four days on the Caucasus conflict.
"It's a premature move ... I cannot see us accepting this French draft," Churkin said, objecting to the fact that it did not refer to "Georgian aggression and to the atrocities we have seen."
Bush's dire assessment of Russian troops pushing beyond South Ossetia and possible pending military strikes was still the subject of debate at the Pentagon, where officials were still analyzing the situation.
As Bush led a ramping-up of US rhetoric, a senior US official who requested anonymity told reporters at the US State Department that Russia's actions in Georgia recalled previous attacks and eventual occupation of Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia.
"It is a very grim situation and a dangerous one. This Russian invasion recalls variously the invasion of Afghanistan (1978), the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Soviet invasion of Georgia in 1922," the official said.
Separately, the leading candidates in the November 4 presidential election, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, both issued statements urging an immediate ceasefire and calling for a united front against what they say is Moscow's aggression towards Georgia.
The statements differed in specifics, but they were similar in substance and in line with US foreign policy.
"No matter how this conflict started, Russia has escalated it well beyond the dispute over South Ossetia and invaded another country," said Obama, on vacation in Hawaii.
"In the face of Russian aggression," McCain said, "the very existence of independent Georgia and the survival of its democratically elected government are at stake."
The leaders in Moscow "must understand the severe, long-term negative consequences that their government's actions will have for Russia's relationship with the US and Europe," McCain said.
He called for an emergency session of NATO's executive council and -- like Obama -- for the West to press ahead with a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to the violence.
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