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Russia's First Channel on Friday televised images of what it said were burning Georgian armoured vehicles in Tskhinvali, capital of the South Ossetian breakaway region of Georgia. Georgia launched a massive attack Friday to regain control of South Ossetia. ((First Channel/Associated Press))

Hundreds of civilians were reportedly killed in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia on Friday as Georgia launched a major military offensive to regain the territory and Russia responded by sending troops into the region.

Battles raged through much of Friday night and into Saturday, devastating the provincial capital Tskhinvali. Georgia has said it invaded South Ossetia because of rebel attacks, while the Georgian breakaway territory claims Georgia violated a ceasefire.

Eduard Kokoity, the head of South Ossetia's rebel government, accused Georgia of acting aggressively. He told Interfax news that about 1,400 people have died as a result of "Georgian aggression," a number he based on reports from relatives.

The fighting marked the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de facto independence from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has long vowed to reclaim the territory from South Ossetian separatists, who have ties to Russia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has always warned that a Georgian attack would draw retaliation, while Russia's Defence Ministry has vowed to protect South Ossetians, many of whom have Russian citizenship.

The current conflict is threatening to spark a larger war between Georgia and Russia, as well as heighten tensions between Moscow and Washington. The United Nations Security Council convened two emergency sessions over the conflict Friday, with a third one planned for Saturday, according to officials.

Meanwhile, a top Georgian official told Reuters that Saakashvili was planning to declare martial law.

Georgia's Interior Ministry said Saturday that warplanes had attacked three Georgian military bases and key facilities for shipping oil to the West. Foreign Ministry officials said Friday that Russian aircraft had bombed military air bases in the southern Marneuli and Bolnisi communities, while reports suggest columns of Russian tanks have rumbled into the region.

Reports emerged that Georgian forces shot down four Russian planes, while South Ossetia officials said Georgian troops were firing missiles into the region, and attacking by air and ground. 

"I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars," said Tskhinvali resident Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, who had fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia.

"It's impossible to count [the ruined buildings] now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged."

'Brilliant moment to attack a small country'

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South Ossetia has been running its own affairs since declaring independence in the early 1990s, but has not been internationally recognized as independent. ((CBC))

The fighting broke out Friday as the world's attention was focused on the bedazzling hours-long opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Observers say the timing suggests Saakashvili was counting on the element of surprise to fulfil his long-term pledge to reclaim the region.

Saakashvili argued Russia was taking advantage of the timing.

"Most decision-makers have gone for the holidays," he told CNN. "Brilliant moment to attack a country."

"Russia is fighting a war with us in our own territory. And we are in this situation of self-defence against our neighbour," he added.

He said he is calling his Georgian troops home from Iraq to handle the domestic crisis. Georgia, with 2,000 troops in Iraq, is the largest contributor in Iraq after the United States and Britain.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow has a right to move into South Ossetia on behalf of the Russians living there.

"In accordance with the constitution and federal laws, I, as president of Russia, am obliged to protect lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located," he said. "We won't allow the death of our compatriots to go unpunished."

International community condemns violence

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who were among the many world leaders attending the Beijing ceremony, discussed the South Ossetia situation but details of the talks were not released.

The U.S. is sending an envoy to the region and Bush is receiving constant updates on the situation, White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

"I want to reiterate on his behalf that the United States supports Georgia's territorial integrity," she said, speaking on behalf of Bush. "We urge all parties — Georgians, South Ossetians and Russians — to de-escalate the tension and avoid conflict."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Russia to end all aircraft and missile attacks and pull its combat forces out of South Ossetia out of respect for Georgian sovereignty. 

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson, who was in China for the opening of the Olympic Games, said Canada is "gravely concerned" about the violence in South Ossetia "and we deplore the casualties that have resulted."

"We call for an immediate halt to the hostilities and strongly urge all parties involved to display restraint in words and deeds, and to respect national boundaries," Emerson said in a statement that calls for "a peaceful resolution of the conflict."

The UN and NATO, an organization Georgia is bidding to join, also condemned the violence and called for peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Short ceasefire gives civilians time to leave

In Tskhinvali, the main hospital stopped functioning and ambulances were unable to reach wounded civilians, said International Red Cross spokeswoman Maia Kardova, located in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

The Red Cross has been urging the warring sides to allow aid workers access to wounded and frightened civilians, some who reportedly are hiding in their basements without access to food, water or electricity.

Russia, which has always maintained peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, said 12 of its peacekeepers were killed in the clashes and 150 wounded, according to Reuters.

Georgia declared a three-hour ceasefire, which began at 3 p.m. local time, to give civilians a chance to leave Tskhinvali. Panicked villagers fled to the Russian border to find safety, some of them spending the night in fields.

West criticized Russia for provoking tensions

Saakashvili has long pledged to restore rule over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia. Both regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s, and both have built up ties with Moscow.

Russia was criticized by the West for provoking tensions by sending warplanes over South Ossetia last month.

Most of South Ossetia, which is roughly 1.5 times the size of Luxembourg, has been under the control of an internationally unrecognized separatist government since 1992. Georgian forces held several swaths of it.

Relations between Georgia and Russia worsened notably this year as Georgia pushed to join NATO and Russia dispatched additional peacekeepers to Abkhazia.

With files from the Associated Press