WASHINGTON The United States urged Russia on Friday to halt aircraft and missile attacks in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia and withdraw its combat forces from Georgian territory as the situation in the former Soviet state verged on full-scale war.
The White House said President Bush discussed the situation with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin while both leaders were in Beijing for the start of the Olympics. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the parties involved in hopes of ending the fighting, and made plans to send a U.S. envoy to the region.
"The United States calls for an immediate cease-fire to the armed conflict in Georgia's region of South Ossetia," Rice said in a statement. "We call on Russia to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgia's territorial integrity and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil."
Rice also said Russia should respect Georgian sovereignty and agree to international mediation to end the crisis that threatens to engulf the volatile region. "We urgently seek Russia's support of these efforts," she said.
Rice said she and other senior U.S. officials had been in touch with "the parties" to the conflict but did not identify to whom they had spoken. In Moscow, Russia's foreign ministry said Rice had talked to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov told her that Georgia must be convinced to withdraw its forces from South Ossetia, it said.
U.S.-allied Georgia launched a surprise military offensive to retake South Ossetia earlier Friday, reportedly killing hundreds of people and triggering a ferocious counterattack from Russia, which has sent tanks across the border and reportedly bombed Georgian air bases.
In Beijing, White House press secretary Dana Perino urged "all parties, Georgians, South Ossetians and Russians, to de-escalate the tension and avoid conflict" and "restart their dialogue." She said Bush was getting regular updates on the situation.
A U.S. official in Washington identified the envoy as deputy assistant secretary of state Matthew Bryza, a specialist on the region, who will be traveling soon to Tbilisi and elsewhere with European diplomats in a bid to defuse the situation.
At the Pentagon, a senior defense official said Friday that Georgian authorities have asked the United States for help getting their troops out of Iraq.
Georgia has about 2,000 troops serving with the coalition forces in Iraq, making it the third-largest contributor after the United States and Britain.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions have been private, said no formal decision has been made on whether to support the departure, but said it is likely the U.S. will do so.
Also, Pentagon officials said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has reached out to his counterparts in Russia and Georgia, but has not yet connected with them.
The fighting is the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de facto independence in a war that ended in 1992.
A Russian military officer said that 10 Russian peacekeepers were killed and 30 wounded when their barracks were hit in Georgian shelling. Russia has soldiers in South Ossetia as peacekeeping forces, but Georgia alleges they back the separatists.
Vasil Sikharulidze, Georgia's ambassador to Washington, said in an interview, "We are asking our friends, and the United States among them, to somehow to try to mediate and try to persuade Russia to stop this military aggression and invasion of Georgia."
"What we heard is that the State Department and the entire administration is deeply concerned and that they are heavily engaged with Russia trying to de-escalate the situation," he said.
At a luncheon for world leaders in Beijing, Bush talked to Putin about the fighting, a White House spokesman said, without giving details.
Defense Department officials have had some contact with Georgian authorities, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Friday, adding that the U.S. is monitoring the situation closely. Whitman said Georgia has not requested any U.S. assistance, but he would not provide details on discussions that have occurred.
He said he does not believe U.S. military officials have had any contact with the Russians.
According to Whitman, the U.S. has about 130 trainers in Georgia, including a few dozen civilians who are working to prepare the Georgian forces for their next deployment to Iraq. He said all of those U.S. trainers have been accounted for, none has been injured, and there are no plans to pull them out of the country.
He said the trainers are in the Tbilisi area, but would not say exactly where.
Both major U.S. presidential candidates also weighed in.
Republican John McCain said Russia should immediately withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.
"What is most critical now is to avoid further confrontation between Russian and Georgian military forces. The consequences for Euro-Atlantic stability and security are grave," he said, calling for the international community "to establish a truly independent and neutral peacekeeping force in South Ossetia."
Democrat Barack Obama said Georgia and Russia must show restraint and avoid a full-scale war.
"All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia," he said in a statement.