August 8, 2008 / 9:51 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 2-Georgia, Russia hurl accusations over South Ossetia

(Adds failure to agree on statement, U.S. ambassador, weekend meeting)

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Russian and Georgian envoys hurled accusations at each other at the United Nations on Friday, while the Security Council again failed to agree on language calling for an end to the fighting in South Ossetia.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Georgia was deliberately targeting Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, where escalating fighting has stoked fears of all-out war.

“The situation is so catastrophic that the International Committee of the Red Cross has asked for a humanitarian corridor,” Churkin told the U.N. Security Council at its second emergency meeting on the crisis in just over 12 hours. He said Georgians were guilty of “ethnic cleansing.”

In South Ossetia, the separatists’ press service reported on its website that Russian armored vehicles had entered the northern edges of the region’s capital.

Moscow said its troops were responding to a Georgian assault to retake South Ossetia. Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili said the two states were at war.

Georgian Ambassador Irakli Alasania rejected Churkin’s charges, telling the 15-nation council that Tbilisi was merely defending itself against Russian aggression. He said Russia was bombing civilian targets and infrastructure in Georgia.

“Georgian troops are not targeting peacekeepers,” he said. Turning directly to Churkin, he asked, “Are you ready to stop the bombers in the air?”

Asked about reports that Russian fighter jets bombed a container tank and civilian infrastructure in the Georgian port of Poti, Churkin said: “I don’t have this information.”

DEMANDS FOR RUSSIAN WITHDRAWAL

Alasania said the separatists, backed by Russia, were the ones guilty of “ethnic cleansing.”

“We demand the Russian Federation immediately terminate aerial bombardments, immediately pull out the occupying forces, and negotiate cease-fire,” he said, adding that Saakashvili was ready for direct peace talks with the Russians.

Speaking after reports about wider Russian aerial bombardments in Georgia, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad issued a sharp condemnation of Moscow.

“We deplore the Russian military action in Georgia, which is a violation of Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he told reporters.

But Churkin made clear that Russia would never abandon the region. “Historically Russia was and will remain the guarantor of the security of the people of the Caucuses,” he said.

In a late-night session on Thursday, Security Council members were unable to agree on a draft statement that would have called for a cease-fire.

Churkin told reporters that the five permanent council members — Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States — were close to an agreement on acceptable new wording.

But Belgian Ambassador Jan Grauls, who holds the council’s rotating presidency, said council members once again failed to reach an agreement on the wording of an appeal and would likely meet again on Saturday with the aim of issuing a statement backed by all 15 member states. (Additional reporting by Megan Davies; Editing by Chris Wilson)

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