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Georgia: Saakashvili Travels To London Amid Easing Tensions Over South Ossetia

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili Tensions are easing following last week's confrontation between Tbilisi and Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia that came after Ossetians detained a group of Georgian officers. The dispute sparked threats between Tbilisi and Moscow, which maintains peacekeepers in South Ossetia. But with the situation cooling today, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was free to travel to London for a three-day visit.

Prague, 12 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is traveling to London today for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair as tensions eased over a crisis in Georgia's separatist South Ossetia region.

Before leaving Georgia, Saakashvili reiterated that Georgia does not want to enter into a conflict with South Ossetia.

Georgian Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili is expected to travel to Moscow today to discuss the issue with his Russian counterpart.

Saakashvili yesterday stressed Russia's key role in the settlement of the conflict.

"This is a Russian-Georgian issue," Saakashvili said. "We tried hard to avoid the Georgia-Ossetian question. But it didn't work. This is an issue between Tbilisi and Moscow. We are ready for a constructive dialogue with Moscow but if there are people from the Duma or elsewhere who will try to put pressure on us -- it won't work. We are not afraid. We are ready to solve all the issues with Russia."

Saakashvili, who won election in January after promising to reunify the fractured state, has vowed to bring South Ossetia under the control of Georgia's central government.

South Ossetia fought a bitter three-year battle for independence from Tbilisi with Russian support after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The region declared de facto independence in 1992 and has expressed interest in joining Russia. Moscow, which keeps peacekeeping troops in the region, does not formally recognize the local government, but most South Ossetians hold Russian passports.
"If they want to come to Georgia and spill blood, then let them come. But it will be their blood that will flow. We will kill them off without mercy." -- Georgian President Saakashvili.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday accused Georgia of maintaining illegal armed units in South Ossetia and called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to ensure that Tbilisi work toward an agreed Georgian-Ossetian settlement.

"The only thing that guides us is international law, in this case the agreements signed by the Georgian side and supported -- approved -- by the OSCE," Lavrov said. "That's why the only responsibility for the complicated situation falls to Tbilisi. The OSCE is obliged, as an organization that has agreements with Georgia, to ensure an end to the violations of the settlement by the Georgian leadership."

Russian government envoy Lev Mironov said yesterday that Georgian and South Ossetian representatives, after negotiations, had agreed to refrain from any further provocations.

Saakashvili said on 10 July that Georgian troops should be prepared to battle against "foreign invaders" who are helping South Ossetia.

"If they want to come to Georgia and spill blood, then let them come," Saakashvili said. "But it will be their blood that will flow. We will kill them off without mercy -- anyone who comes and takes up arms against Georgia. They should understand this. No matter how powerful the enemy is, no matter what weapons they may bear, they are foreigners on our land and we will defend our republic against these aggressors. We have no path for retreat and we will defend our nation as we have for ages."

Tensions hit a high point on 8 July when Ossetian separatists detained a group of Georgian officers.

The incident prompted Saakashvili to warn that escalated fighting could bring war between Georgia and Russia.

All but three of the officers were later released.

A Georgian website has reported the three were handed over to the Russian peacekeeping contingent based in the region, which is now expected to turn them back over to the Georgians.