TBLISI, Georgia (CNN) — Georgia’s president said Friday that his country is under attack by Russian tanks and warplanes, and he accused Russia of targeting civilians as tensions over the breakaway 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,” President Mikhail Saakashvili told CNN in an exclusive interview.
“This is the worst nightmare one can encounter,” he said.
Asked whether Georgia and Russia were now at war, he said, “My country is in self-defense against Russian aggression. Russian troops invaded Georgia.”
About 150 Russian armored vehicles have entered South Ossetia, Saakashvili said, and Georgian forces had shot down two Russian aircraft.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meanwhile said Moscow had received reports that villages in South Ossetia were being ethnically cleansed, according to Reuters.com.
“We are receiving reports that a police of ethnic cleansing was being conducted in villages in South Ossetia, the number of refugees is climbing, the panic is growing, people are trying to save their lives,” he was reported saying.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax, said Russians had died because of Georgia’s operations.
Russia “will not allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished” and “those guilty will receive due punishment,” he said. “My duty as Russian president is to safeguard the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they are. This is what is behind the logic of the steps we are undertaking now.”
South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, but it was not internationally recognized. Many ethnic Ossetians feel close to Russia and have Russian passports and use its currency.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said it sent “reinforcements” to South Ossetia to help the Russian peacekeepers already stationed there.
Earlier Friday, Russian military aircraft dropped two bombs on Georgian territory, a Georgian official said, causing no casualties. Georgian officials also report four Russian aircraft shot down.
The U.S., NATO and European Union have all called for an end to the fighting. U.S. President George Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday discussed the conflict in Georgia, the White House confirmed.
In a letter addressed to his “fellow citizens” Friday, Saakashvili said he had mobilized tens of thousands of reserve officers and that the mobilization continued.
“We must unite,” Saakashvili wrote. “All of us, hundreds of thousands of Georgians here and abroad, should come together, unite, and fight to save Georgia. We are a freedom-loving people, and if our nation is united, no aggressor will be able to harm it.”
Georgia declared a unilateral three-hour cease fire at 3 p.m. to enable civilians to escape from the conflict zone, which so far was focused inside South Ossetia but included aerial targets inside Georgia, Saakashvili said.
“Clearly they don’t really have boundaries in their activities,” said Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili, in an interview with CNN. She said Russian aircraft had bombed “several villages” in Georgia outside of the South Ossetian territory.
By early evening Friday, Georgian Cabinet minister said the country’s forces have taken control of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. He spoke to Interfax news agency, which also quoted separtists denying the city was udner Georgian control.
Tkeshelashvili said Georgian authorities are still collecting information on casualties.
Georgia was appealing to the world for diplomatic intervention, she said, stressing that Georgia was not asking for military assistance.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it was sending an envoy to the region immediately.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer issued a statement Friday saying he was seriously concerned about the recent events in the region, and he called on all sides to end armed clashes and begin direct talks. Video Watch more about NATO’s attempts to help Georgia Â»
Carmen Romero, a NATO spokeswoman speaking to CNN from Brussels, reiterated Scheffer’s statement. She said NATO was in regular contact with Georgia’s president and was talking to the Russian side.
Britain and the United States also urged all sides to bring an immediate end to the violence. Acting U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzo Gallegos said: “We support Georgia’s territorial integrity and call for an immediate cease-fire. We urge all parties … to de-escalate and avoid conflict
An emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Friday discussed the dramatic escalation of violence. 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. 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.
Alexander Lomaia, the secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, 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.
Russia said a Georgian attack on a military barracks left a number of Russian peacekeepers dead.
“It’s all very sad and alarming,” Putin said earlier in the day. “And, of course, there will be a response.”
“There are lots of volunteers being gathered in the region, and it’s very hard to withhold them from taking part. A real war is going on,” Putin said, according to his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
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.
Saakashvili said the Russian invasion of South Ossetia was pre-planned.
“These troops that are in Georgia now — they didn’t come unexpectedly,” the president told CNN. “They had been amassing at the border for the last few months. They claimed they were staging exercises there and as soon as a suitable pretext was found, they moved in.”
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.