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Russia calls halt to 5-day invasion of Georgia

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TBILISI, Georgia — Declaring "the aggressor has been punished," the Kremlin ordered a halt Tuesday to Russia's devastating assault on Georgia _ five days of air and ground attacks that left homes in smoldering ruins and uprooted 100,000 people.

Both sides accepted the general outlines of a cease-fire plan, but Georgia complained hours after the Russian endorsement that bombs and shells were still falling.

Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia's aim all along was not to gain control of two disputed provinces but to "destroy" the smaller nation, a former Soviet state and current U.S. ally.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in Moscow, said Georgia had paid enough for its attack on South Ossetia, a separatist region along the Russian border with close ties to Russia.

"The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized," Medvedev said.

Still, the president ordered his defense minister at a televised Kremlin meeting: "If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them."

Hours later, Saakashvili told reporters that he backed the cease-fire plan negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which calls for both sides to move back to their positions before fighting erupted.

Saakashvili said that he accepted the "general principles" of the deal but said he saw no reason to sign it as it was only a "political document."

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were believed to have died since Georgia launched its crackdown on South Ossetia on Thursday, drawing the punishing response from its much larger northern neighbor.

There appeared to be signs fo Russian forces attacking Georgian targets within hours of Medvedev's televised order, if not after.

An Associated Press reporter saw 135 Russian military vehicles headed toward the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia.

Georgian officials said Russia was attacking their troops in the gorge, but a commander in Abkhazia said only local forces, not Russian ones, were involved in push the Georgians out of the region.

The commander, Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zaitsev, said the Russian-backed separatist forces in Abkhazia had driven Georgian troops out of the gorge, their last stronghold in the region, after days of air and artillery strikes.

Hours before Medvedev's order, Russian jets bombed the crossroads city of Gori, near South Ossetia. The post office and university there were burning, but the city was all but deserted after most remaining residents and Georgian soldiers fled.

Saakashvili, speaking to thousands at a square in the capital of Tbilisi, red and white Georgian flags fluttering in the crowd, said the Russian invasion was not about the two disputed provinces.

"They just don't want freedom, and that's why they want to stamp on Georgia and destroy it," he declared.

He was joined by the leaders of the former Soviet bloc states of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Polish President Lech Kacyznski warned the crowd that Russia wanted a return to the past.

"Everyone knows the next one could be Ukraine, and then Poland. All of Europe should be here now," he said.

Russia accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in the separatist province of South Ossetia. The claim couldn't be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died.

The overall death toll was expected to rise because large areas of Georgia were still too dangerous for journalists to enter and see the true scope of the damage.

The first relief flight from the U.N. refugee agency arrived in Georgia as the number of people uprooted by the conflict neared 100,000. Thousands streamed into the capital.

Those left behind in devastated regions of Georgia cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered nearly deserted cities.

In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian provincial capital now under Russian control, the body of a Georgian soldier lay in the street along with debris as separatist fighters launched rockets at a Georgian plane soaring overhead.

A tour by AP journalists found the heaviest damage around the government center. Near the city center, pieces of tanks lay near a bomb crater. The turret of one tank was blown into the front of the printing school across the street. A severed foot lay on the sidewalk nearby. Several residential areas seemed to have little damage beyond shattered windows.

A poster hanging nearby showed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the words "Say yes to peace and stability." Broken glass and other debris littered the ground.

Besides the dead, tens of thousands of terrified people have fled the fighting _ South Ossetians north to Russia, and Georgians east toward the capital of Tbilisi and west to the country's Black Sea coast.

Among those left behind was 70-year-old Vahktang Chkekvadze, a Georgian villager living in Ruisi who was picking away what was left of a window frame torn by an explosion.

"I always hide in the basement," he said, used to living in a conflict zone. "But this time the explosion came so abruptly, I don't remember what happened afterward."

Two men and a woman in the village, in undisputed Georgian territory just outside South Ossetia, were killed just half an hour before Medvedev went on television to announce the pause in fighting.

Russian officers accompanying journalists visiting Tskhinvali argued that the battle damage showed Georgian troops specifically targeted by Georgian troops. While the most widespread destruction was confined to the area around the government center, several residential areas seemed to have little damage, except for shattered windows, perhaps from bomb concussions.

Separatists in South Ossetia declared an overnight curfew Tuesday. Georgia said its people still in Tskhinvali were being shot at Tuesday night despite the truce, but the claim could not immediately be confirmed.

Amid the suggestions the military action was cooling down, the Russia-Georgia dispute reached the international courts, with the Georgian security council saying it had sued for ethnic cleansing. Earlier the Russians accused the Georgians of genocide.

The conflict _ and its Cold War echoes _ continued to play out on the international stage. The leaders of five former Soviet bloc states spoke out against Russian domination at a rally in Tbilisi.

"Our neighbor thinks it can fight us. We are telling it no," said Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who was joined by the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine at the rally. Kaczynski says Russia wanted a return to "old times.

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin told CNN his country is seeking details on what started the fighting.

"We do not want to believe that the United States has given a green light to this adventurous act," he said. "But our American colleagues are telling us that they're investigating now what may have happened in the channels of communication for Mr. Saakashvili to have behaved in such a reckless manner."

President Bush, one day earlier, had called the Russian invasion unacceptable, and on Tuesday the Russian president assailed the West for supporting Georgia. "International law doesn't envision double standards," Medvedev said.

U.S. officials were focused on confirming a cease-fire and attending to Georgia's urgent humanitarian needs.

"The Russians need to stop their military operations as they have apparently said that they will, but those military operations really do now need to stop because calm needs to be restored," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

A U.S. senior defense official in Washington said the U.S. has decided to dump a major NATO naval exercise with Russia that was scheduled to begin Friday.

Georgia, which is pushing for NATO membership, borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s. Both separatist provinces are backed by Russia, which appears open to absorbing them.

Medvedev said Georgia must allow the provinces to decide whether they want to remain part of Georgia.

"Ossetians and Abkhaz must respond to that question taking their history into account, including what happened in the past few days," Medvedev said grimly.

Medvedev said Russian peacekeepers would stay in both provinces, even as Saakashvili said his government will officially designate them as occupying forces.

In Tbilisi, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza declined to say whether the U.S. would provide military support if Russia expands its assault.

Georgia sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and bypassing Russia. The British oil company BP shut down one of three Georgian pipelines, saying it was a precaution.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia reported from Zugdidi, Georgia, and near the Kodori Gorge. Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili reported from Tbilisi, Georgia. David Nowak in Gori, Georgia; Sergei Grits in Ruisi, Georgia; Douglas Birch in Vladikavkaz, Russia; Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov and Lynn Berry in Moscow; Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.