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Russians broaden Georgia offensive

TBILISI, Georgia — Russian forces broadened their crushing offensive against Georgia on Monday, and Georgian officials feared the worst — that the Russian invasion would mean the end of their country's independence.

Russian troops were reported to be in control of Georgia's main east-west highway outside the central Georgian town of Gori. Reports also said they had taken control of Georgia's main port at Poti, had seized a Georgian military base in the west and had complete dominion of the skies, from which they bombed and strafed retreating Georgian troops at will.

In Washington, President Bush warned of a ”dramatic and brutal escalation“ by Russia and said it appeared Russia might be trying to oust Georgia's president, a former Washington lawyer who is a staunch U.S. ally.

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden immediately after flying home from China, Bush said it appeared Russia was moving beyond the original ”zone of conflict“ and might soon bomb the civilian airport and attack Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in a nationally broadcast address, said that he'd offered a cease-fire but had been rebuffed.

Russian officials said that Georgian forces were still fighting, however, and a Russian defense spokesman said Saakashvili's offer wasn't ”worth a penny.“

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nagovitsin, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, reiterated his government's bottom line: Russia won't cease fighting until Georgia not only pulls out of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia but also signs an agreement never to pursue force against them again.

The United States and Europe pressed for a cease-fire, without effect.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chafed at the criticism, likening Russia's moves against Georgia to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and using that American presence there as justification for Russian calls for the overthrow of the U.S.-allied Georgian government.

He also criticized the United States for flying 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq aboard U.S. military aircraft. ”It is a shame that some of our partners are not helping us but, essentially, are hindering us,“ Putin said.