WASHINGTON– President Bush today expressed deep concern over reports that Russia has escalated a conflict with Georgia, calling the ramped-up moves by Moscow “unacceptable in the 21st century,” and urging the country to accept a peace agreement. Fighting that began last week in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia has today broadened “beyond the zone of conflict,” to include a Russian attack on the Georgian town of Gori, and threats to the capital city of Tbilisi, the president said.

“If these reports are accurate, these Russian actions would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia,” Bush said during a news conference today at the White House.

He added that such actions would be inconsistent with assurances by Russia to restore forces in South Ossetia to pre-fighting levels, one element of a peace agreement that Georgia, a former Soviet republic, also endorsed.

Other pieces of the treaty, which diplomatic officials are pursuing in Moscow, include an immediate cease-fire, the withdrawal of forces from the conflict zone and a commitment to refrain from using force.

“The Georgian government has accepted the elements of a peace agreement that the Russian government previously said it would be willing to accept,” Bush said.

But hopes for an agreement appear to be fading as the situation unfolds in Georgia, where the U.S. State Department today helped to evacuate at least 170 American citizens from Georgia as well as dependents of embassy staff in Tbilisi, according to reports.

Georgia declared its independence from the then-Soviet Union in 1991. However, many South Ossetia residents continue to profess Russian allegiance.

The situation was already tense when Russian tanks and troops on Aug. 8 crossed the border into South Ossetia, where they were aided by regional separatists. Clashes escalated a day later in and around Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, as Russian aircraft were reported to have bombed that city, as well as Abkhazia, another breakaway region in Georgia.

President Bush, who had just met with his national security team before today’s news conference, said evidence reveals Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in Tblisi. He added that Moscow may be attempting to depose the democratic government in Georgia.

“Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people,” Bush said. “Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Bush said Russia’s actions have “substantially damaged” the country’s standing in the world, jeopardize Moscow’s relations with the U.S. and Europe, and raise serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region.

He urged Russia to reserve its course and accept the peace agreement as a first step toward resolving the conflict.

“It is time for Russia to be true to its word and to act to end this crisis,” Bush said.

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