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Georgia: Russia Weighs In As Fighting Worsens In South Ossetia

Putin called on Georgia to solve the dispute "through peaceful means." Prague, 19 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the situation continues to deteriorate in Georgia's separatist republic of South Ossetia, Russia is showing signs of growing impatience.

Meanwhile, fresh fighting erupted today in Georgia's separatist republic of South Ossetia.

Speaking by telephone from the regional capital Tskhinvali in mid-afternoon, South Ossetia's Press and Information Committee head Irina Gagloeva told RFE/RL that Georgian troops had launched a mortar attack on the northern outskirts of the city.

"The fighting has been going on for three hours now. [Georgian forces are using] large 152-millimeter mortars. One entire family was killed by one of those strikes, by a direct hit -- a 14-year-old child, a 90-year-old woman, and a 70-year-old man," she said.

Gagloeva said the attack was coming from the nearby ethnic Georgian village of Tamarasheni, a few hundred meters north of Tskhinvali. There was no immediate confirmation from Tbilisi.

Earlier today, Georgia said three of its Interior Ministry troops had been killed and another seven wounded in the separatist region. The death toll brings to 12 the number of Georgian soldiers reportedly killed in South Ossetia in a week.

Also today, fighting broke out between Georgian and South Ossetian troops for control of strategic outposts in the region's northern Djava district.

In an address broadcast on national television, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said the capture of those strategic heights would, if need be, allow his troops to "quickly take control of the entire South Ossetian territory."

However, Gagloeva denied the heights were still under Georgian control. "The Georgian side managed to take the initiative at some point," she said. "But as of now the Ossetian side has succeeded in retaking the position. The situation is under control, although it remains difficult because of Georgian artillery fire."

There was no immediate reaction from Russia, which has dozens of peacekeepers deployed in the region to monitor the 1992 Georgian-Ossetian peace treaty.

For the first time since the beginning of the South Ossetian crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday made his views on the conflict known. Speaking in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he was holding talks with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Putin cautioned Georgia about the risks of renewed conflict in the South Caucasus region.

His Georgian counterpart has vowed to reassert central authority over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both separatist regions seceded more than a decade ago following bloody conflicts with Tbilisi.
"These conflicts broke out in the late 1980s-early 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union, when newly independent Georgia suddenly abolished the autonomous status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia." - Putin

Saakashvili in the past has pledged to resolve Georgia's sovereignty disputes peacefully. Putin yesterday urged the Georgian leader to honor that promise. "We are particularly concerned by the explosive developments around South Ossetia and the similarly explosive situation that prevails around Abkhazia," Putin said. "[President Kuchma and I] agree that what is important, now more than ever, is for the sides to be ready to solve their disputes through peaceful means. Threats can only lead to a stalemate. This is the reason why it is important that the negotiation process continue with a view to creating an atmosphere of trust and preserving peace and stability. Russia will do its utmost to foster this process."

Putin also issued a strong warning, saying any attempt at forcefully regaining control over either or both of the breakaway regions may reignite old conflicts. "Let's remind ourselves how these conflicts broke out. These conflicts broke out in the late 1980s-early 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union, when newly independent Georgia suddenly abolished the autonomous status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said. "This stupid decision paved the way for those interethnic conflicts. What we see today is a repetition of what happened in the early 1990s." Unlike that of South Ossetia, Georgia never formally abolished Abkhazia's autonomous status.

Both Georgia and South Ossetia deny responsibility for the violence, saying their troops have only acted when forced to return enemy fire. Both sides also blame rogue elements -- so-called third forces -- for triggering the clashes.

For Georgia, this "third force" includes both Russian peacekeepers and armed mercenaries allegedly hired by South Ossetia. But for the separatist leadership and Russian peacekeepers stationed in the area, the third force is represented by the thousands of Georgian Interior Ministry troops dispatched to the region last June -- officially to combat local smuggling rings and protect Georgian villages from alleged South Ossetian ethnic-cleansing plans.

In remarks broadcast on the Tbilisi-based Rustavi-2 private television station, Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili said today his troops had killed eight Cossacks during the assault on strategic outposts in the Djava district. Okruashvili's claims could not be independently confirmed.

Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily this week published an interview with a Don Cossack leader, Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn, who admitted that his troops were operating in South Ossetia.

Georgia reacted strongly to the article, demanding yesterday that Moscow take steps to prevent armed mercenaries from entering the separatist region. A statement posted on the Georgian Foreign Ministry website says Russia is "responsible for all illegal acts committed by its citizens against a sovereign state."

Many in Tbilisi are wary that Moscow, which has been a strong supporter of South Ossetia in the past, will adopt a similar stance in the current conflict.

In an interview yesterday with the French-based EuroNews TV channel, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili blamed what she called "conservative circles" in Russia with seeking to meddle in regional affairs. But she said Tbilisi is still willing to maintain neighborly relations with Moscow.

Under the rule of longtime Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, relations between the two capitals were characterized by mutual mistrust.

But bilateral ties have improved significantly since the recent change of leadership in Tbilisi. Russia last November helped Saakashvili's rise to power by securing Shevardnadze's resignation. Earlier this year, it helped Georgia reassert control over its unruly autonomous republic of Adjara.

Tbilisi and Moscow have resumed work on a friendship and cooperation treaty designed to replace a similar 1994 accord that Russian lawmakers never ratified. The treaty was due to be finalized within weeks, in time for Putin's first official visit to Georgia tentatively scheduled for this fall.

But the Russian leader yesterday said developments in South Ossetia will make it impossible for him to proceed with the planned visit. "We discussed this possibility with [our] Georgian colleagues," he said. "However, given the tense situation [in South Ossetia], I believe such a trip would be inappropriate under the present circumstances."

Georgia's top political leaders, who reportedly spent the night discussing the situation in South Ossetia, have yet to react to Putin's announcement.

Tbilisi, meanwhile, is continuing to press for an internationalization of its dispute with South Ossetia. Moscow has bluntly rejected the idea.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday said the four-party Joint Control Commission (JCC), set up to monitor the 1992 peace treaty and a Russian-led peacekeeping force in the area, was sufficient to help both sides reach a compromise.

"New international forums are usually convened either when there is no settlement mechanism, or when the existing mechanisms do not work -- as is notably the case in Iraq. With regard to South Ossetia, settlement mechanisms do exist. Those are the JCC and the peacekeeping forces. These mechanisms work. In these circumstances, one should not look ahead to convening a new forum, but rather to implementing those agreements that are being reached in the framework of existing forums," Lavrov said.

A JCC meeting took place yesterday in Tskhinvali, in a bid to arrange a hypothetical meeting between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity. Participants also agreed on a prisoner swap that took place early on today.

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