The conflict that erupted on Thursday between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia escalated on Friday night amid claims and counter-claims of actions by the two countries and urgent international peace efforts.
Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, called for an immediate ceasefire in the breakaway enclave backed by Russia, and US officials said they would send an envoy to the region to help mediate.
Officials said Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-western president, planned to declare martial law in the next few hours as it battled to get control of the rebel enclave.
At the United Nations Security Council, Russia and Georgia traded accusations of ethnic cleansing during a tense debate called to try to reach consensus on a ceasefire in South Ossetia.
“They are about to bomb the civilian population as they did in the past 24 hours,” said Irakli Alasania, Georgian envoy to the UN, in a heated exchange with Russia’s Vitaly Churkin. “What are we going to do?”
The council’s second attempt within 24 hours to agree on a statement about the South Ossetia crisis led to a bitter debate between the two envoys.
Mr Alasania – invited to attend the session – quoted what he said was the latest information from his capital, Tbilisi, saying Russian air attacks had now extended to Abkhazia, another breakaway territory of Georgia.
Mr Churkin, dismissing Georgian “slanders”, said the Georgian authorities were to blame for the civilian flight following their destruction of schools and hospitals in South Ossetia. He said Georgian forces had attacked the headquarters of Russian peacekeepers in the territory – a charge the Georgian envoy denied.
In an open session, individual representatives of the security council member states called for an immediate ceasefire. Mr Churkin made no reference to claims that the Russians had bombed targets outside the enclave of South Ossetia.
In Moscow, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, told the Financial Times he could not confirm claims of hackers attacking Georgian government websites.
Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy, called on Russia to end aerial and missile attacks and remove ground troops from Georgian territory.
The US and other western governments – in support of Georgia – had objected to a demand in an earlier Russian draft statement on the crisis that would have required both sides in the conflict to renounce the use of force. Georgia said it reserved the right to use all means to protect its civilian population in the absence of a negotiated settlement.
In Tbilisi, the government issued a statement saying: “Georgian government sources have confirmed that the Russian Federation air force has launched aggressive aerial attacks against civilian and military targets in Georgia.
“This evening, Russia completely devastated the port of Poti on the Black Sea, which is a key port for the transportation of energy sources from the Caspian Sea and is close to the Baku-Supsa pipeline and the Supsa oil terminal. This act of aggression violates all international war conventions.”
Get alerts on Terrorism when a new story is published