Prague, 20 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time in a week, no fighting was reported overnight in Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia.
Georgian and South Ossetian officials both confirm that the night passed quietly. Local authorities in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali also said Georgia is proceeding with its promised pullout of troops from an area that saw intense fighting yesterday.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said the pullout demonstrates the willingness of his government to use political negotiations to resolve the conflict with the separatist region, which he is eager to bring back into the Georgian fold.
But at the same time, he warned that his patience is wearing thin. "[The Georgian offer to pull back] will remove all chance for our opponents to accuse us of escalation in the area," he said. "And I want to say that this is the last chance for peace, and I want to warn each provocateur to understand this very well."
A 1992 peace agreement allows joint patrols by peacekeepers from Russia, South Ossetia, Georgia, and the Russian republic of North Ossetia. But in June, Georgian Interior Ministry troops were dispatched to the region, officially to combat local smuggling rings and to protect Georgian villages in the area.
South Ossetians saw the deployment as a step toward forcing the pro-Moscow region back under Georgian control. Many South Ossetians hold Russian citizenship, and the region has demanded either independence or rule from Moscow.
Clashes broke out last week between Georgian troops and South Ossetian forces and have flared on and off ever since. Twelve Georgian soldiers and a number of South Ossetian civilians and militiamen have reportedly been killed.
In intense fighting yesterday, Georgian forces captured strategic heights near Tskhinvali, but began their pullout soon afterward. The troops are to be relocated to Gori, a Georgian city some 25 kilometers southeast of Tskhinvali. Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili said that, if need be, troops can be back in South Ossetia "within 15 minutes."
Both Russia and the United States have welcomed the pullout. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli yesterday called on both sides to use the pullout to "reduce tensions and move the political process forward." Russia's ambassador-at-large, Lev Mironov, said today Moscow is "happy" to see Georgia honoring the terms of the 1992 peace accord. He also said the joint peacekeeping force is now taking over positions vacated by Interior Ministry troops.
Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday directed a stern warning to the Georgian government, saying it should exercise extreme caution so as not to trigger a new armed conflict in the South Caucasus.
(AFP/Rustavi-2/Novosti-Gruziya)For the latest news on the tensions in South Ossetia, see RFE/RL's webpage on Ossetia and Georgia.