GORI, Georgia — The Georgian army, suffering massive casualties in the face of overwhelming Russian firepower, retreated from the breakaway region of South Ossetia on Sunday. Georgian leaders' recent expressions of defiance turned increasingly into pleas for a cease-fire and Western support in the face of a military debacle.
Russia ignored those calls and continued to bomb targets deep in Georgia, with little apparent opposition. That drew new condemnation from the United States and the European Union, which stepped up diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed, estimated to have claimed more than 2,000 lives.
President Bush sharply criticized Moscow today. "I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia," he said in an interview with NBC. His remarks followed those of Vice President Dick Cheney, who said "Russian aggression must not go unanswered."
At a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Sunday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted in a phone call with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Moscow wants Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili replaced. "Saakashvili must go,' " Khalilzad quoted Lavrov as telling Rice.
Asked by Khalilzad if Russia sought "regime change," Russian Ambassador Vitali Churkin replied tartly, "Regime change is purely an American invention."
Asked about the possibility of sending the U.S. military or other aid to Georgia, deputy national security adviser Jim Jeffrey said, "Right now our focus is on working with both sides, with the Europeans and with a whole variety of international institutions and organizations to get the fighting to stop."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb landed at the airport in the capital, Tbilisi, Sunday evening as part of a diplomatic push to end the conflict.
France currently holds the presidency of the European Union and is proposing a settlement that includes an immediate end to hostilities, withdrawal of forces to positions held before the war, replacement of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia with an international force and respect for Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia. The region seized de facto independence by force of arms in 1992, but internationally is still recognized as being part of Georgia.
Russian airstrikes hit the international airport and a military factory in Tbilisi Sunday evening, as well as Georgian-held positions in Abkhazia, another breakaway region on the Black Sea. Russian warships were reported to be blockading a Black Sea port and to have sunk a Georgian gunboat.
Saakashvili told CNN that "we are not crazy" and "have no interest whatsoever in pursuing hostilities."
Russian officials were far from satisfied and accused Georgia of regrouping its forces in preparation for a counterattack. Early today, dozens of Georgian tanks and vehicles carrying troops passed through Gori, heading north toward South Ossetia.
Western reporters entering South Ossetia with Russian troops saw Georgian soldiers' bodies lying uncollected in the streets of Tskhinvali, the breakaway region's capital, and heavy damage to the city. Civilians told them Georgian tanks had fired indiscriminately during the two-day seizure of the city, killing and wounding many city residents.
Georgia's defeat is translating into popular anger against the United States and the European Union and a widespread sentiment that this small pro-Western country has been abandoned to face Russia alone.
According to Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, at least 7,000 Russian troops, backed by combat aircraft and heavy weapons, attacked Tskhinvali. Georgian officials acknowledged that their troops were routed and quickly retreated early Sunday.
"There were more and more of them," said one retreating Georgian soldier near Tskhinvali, speaking of the attacking Russians. Villagers in the area said they could hear the rumble of the fleeing Georgian forces through the night.
U.S. military aircraft began landing at the commercial airport in Tbilisi on Sunday, transporting Georgian soldiers the government ordered home from Iraq. Until the callback, Georgia had the third-largest contingent of troops serving in Iraq, after the United States and Britain.
Information from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Newspapers and Associated Press was used in this report.