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Georgia: Rogue Elements Blamed For South Ossetia Violence

Prague, 18 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- New clashes erupted overnight in the separatist republic of South Ossetia, reportedly leaving three Georgian soldiers dead and five others wounded. The violence broke out just after Georgian and South Ossetian officials reached a new cease-fire agreement in Tbilisi.

The clashes erupted just 40 minutes after the Joint Control Commission -- the four-party body in charge of monitoring a 12-year-old Georgian-South Ossetian peace agreement -- had agreed on steps to defuse tensions in the separatist region.

The measures, announced late yesterday in Tbilisi, envisaged a new cease-fire agreement, to replace a similar short-lived accord signed last week. It also sought the withdrawal from South Ossetia of all armed forces prohibited by the 1992 Dagomys peace treaty -- including hundreds of Georgian Interior Ministry troops.

It was Tbilisi's decision to send those troops into the region in June that has caused the recent rise in tensions. Officially, the Interior Ministry soldiers were meant to fight local contraband rings and protect ethnic Georgians from alleged separatist plans to cleanse the region of all non-Ossetians.
"Developments are, of course, extremely worrying. The level of the conflict is increasing and we cannot remain indifferent to the situation."

Since then, South Ossetia is believed to have begun preparations for a possible Georgian assault on the regional capital of Tskhinvali. Unconfirmed reports say local authorities have recruited foreign mercenaries in the face of potential armed conflict.

Today's overnight fighting officially brought to nine the number of Georgian soldiers reportedly killed in South Ossetia in less than a week. The Ossetian leadership has reported no casualties.

As in past days, both the Georgian and Ossetian sides today blamed each other for starting the violence, saying their own forces acted only when forced to return enemy fire.

The overnight fighting also marked the first time in the recent clashes that Russian peacekeepers in the region came under fire.

A spokesman for the Russian-led joint peacekeeping force, Colonel Nikolai Baranov, said two Russian checkpoints were targeted in the firefight. No casualties were reported.

Russian Role

Many in Tbilisi accuse Russia of interfering in regional affairs and stirring anti-Georgian feelings in South Ossetia. Moscow helped the separatist region achieve de facto independence in the early 1990s and has granted Russian citizenship to many South Ossetians.

But Russia, which has spent the past decade battling separatist fighters in Chechnya, presents its interests in South Ossetia in a different way. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking yesterday, said Moscow does not need further instability in the Caucasus.

"Developments [in the region] are, of course, extremely worrying. The level of the conflict is increasing and we cannot remain indifferent to [the situation]. We, in no way, need a conflict close to our borders. One should not forget that a majority of South Ossetians are Russian citizens. This conflict can be solved only through political and diplomatic means. Any military solution would be extremely dangerous and could lead to consequences that are very difficult to predict," Ivanov said.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement yesterday said the United States -- Georgia's single largest donor -- is supporting Moscow's efforts to "defuse tension" in South Ossetia and convince both sides to "continue political dialogue."

U.S. State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli said the same day that Washington and Moscow are "both working with the parties to promote dialogue and a peaceful resolution" to their dispute.

While the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate, on the political level both sides say they are working to defuse the crisis.

Russian Army spokesman Baranov today said the Georgian and South Ossetian militaries were about to agree on a plan for removing armed forces from the region, but were interrupted when the overnight fighting broke out.

"Despite the fact that disorderly fire was reported in those very same areas [where fighting occurred in previous days], one has to say that cooperation [between both sides] was becoming obvious. Most importantly, the sides yesterday agreed [on a number of steps] and had already started implementing this agreement during the night," Baranov said.

Mutual Blame

Georgian and South Ossetians blame the upsurge in violence on what they each consider uncontrolled elements on the other side.

Talking to reporters after yesterday's JCC meeting in Tbilisi, Georgian National Security Minister Vano Merabishvili said South Ossetia had allegedly acknowledged the presence of rogue units on its territory that were responsible for recent cease-fire violations.

"After it became clear that [Georgia] wants peace, that [it does] not want war, the South Ossetians started justifying themselves, alleging they were unable to control certain unidentified elements present on their territory. Besides, it is not impossible that some groups may be indeed operating [there]," Merabishvili said.

Officials in Tskhinvali have a different view.

In an interview with RFE/RL yesterday, South Ossetia's Press and Information Committee head Irina Gagloyeva blamed Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili for the recent violence.

Gagloyeva said Georgian Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze had pledged to have Okruashvili abide by the cease-fire agreement. But, she added, she was afraid Baramidze would not be in a position to fulfill his promise:

"In a private conversation with [Colonel Anatoli] Barankevich, our defense minister, Baramidze said he would do his utmost to influence the situation so that Georgian Interior Ministry troops stop shelling [our positions]. Yet, as of now, he is not in a position to offer us an absolute guarantee [that this will be implemented] because Okruashvili has in fact become a kind of a 'third force' in the conflict and supposedly is not answering to anyone," Gagloyeva said.

Georgia's Caucasus Press news agency today quoted Okruashvili as saying there is no "third force" in South Ossetia. The Georgian interior minister blamed Russian peacekeepers for shelling his troops from behind separatist positions.

Baramidze today told Caucasus Press that, in view of the overnight violence, Tbilisi will keep its Interior Ministry troops in South Ossetia for the time being.

For the latest news on the tensions in South Ossetia, see RFE/RL's webpage on Ossetia.

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