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Georgian Jews Flee for Capital, Some Stay to Protect Homes

More than 200 Jewish residents fled fighting near the Georgian border, most from a city where Russian bombers destroyed several apartment blocks Saturday, according to the Jewish Agency.

The agency made contact with and coordinated efforts to evacuate Jewish families in Gori, a town famous as the birthplace of Josef Stalin, which borders the breakaway South Ossetia region.

Several dozen Jews in Gori decided to remain behind and protect their property, but most of the women and children left with other displaced Georgians for the capital, Tbilisi.

A phone call to the local Jewish community center in Gori went unanswered Sunday.

Officials from the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee are on their way to the area to coordinate relief efforts, an agency official in New York said Sunday.

Also Sunday, there were reports that Israel would halt arms sales and military aid to Georgia.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz cited an anonymous senior defense official who said Israel feared that further aid to Georgia would provoke Russia into providing more advanced weaponry to Iran and Syria.

Israel has a longstanding defense relationship with Georgia and over the years has sold rockets, night vision and aerial drones to the former Soviet republic. A drone that was shot down by Russian forces in the breakway republic of Abkhazia earlier this year came from Israel.

Georgian troops withdrew Sunday from South Ossetia as Russian forces pressed near to the Georgian border of the enclave. According to estimates from the Georgian and Russian governments, the death toll for the conflict is near 2,000.

Some 1,000 Jewish families once lived in the disputed Ossetia capital of Tskhinvali, but that number has dwindled to the single digits in the past two decades as internecine conflict ravaged the area.

Regional groups haven’t been able to reach the few Jews still left in Ossetia, according to the Jewish Agency.

Between 10,000 to 12,000 Jews live in Georgia, mostly in Tbilisi.

The conflict showed no signs of easing Sunday and looked to be spreading to Abkhazia, on Georgia’s Black Sea border. Russian forces have not indicated whether they intend to push past Georgia’s border.

The drift toward all-out war with Georgia is the largest international clash for Russian armed forces in more than 20 years. War planes bombed deep in Georgian territory, hitting oil pipelines and the Tblisi airport, Georgia’s Interior Ministry said, according to Interfax.

Gori had been used as a staging ground for Georgian troops during their initial offensive on the Ossetian capital.

Georgian officials have called for a cease-fire and asked for peace talks to resolve the situation in South Ossetia. Saakashvili and former Russian President Vladimir Putin have called the conflict a war and sought to sway international public opinion in their direction as the conflict unfolded over the weekend.

Russian media reports on state-controlled television have described a genocide in South Ossetia by the Georgians, while Saakashvili has sought to characterize the conflict as an incursion on Georgian soil by Russian aggressors.

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