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Russia ‘Reserves Right To Use Force’ Against Georgia

Buildings in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, destroyed in the fighting one year ago
TBILISI (Reuters) - South Ossetia has accused Georgian forces of firing mortars at the rebel territory, as Russia warned Tbilisi that it reserved the right to use force to defend civilians a year after their five-day war.

Georgia denied any shooting took place, and, amid rising tension ahead of the August 7 anniversary of the start of the war, said the Russian statement suggested "aggressive intent."

Analysts warn of the risk of skirmishes boiling over into renewed hostilities.

South Ossetia said two mortar rounds were fired at a military observation post from the village of Ditsi on the Georgian side of the de facto border, which runs a few hundred meters from the southern edge of the rebel capital Tskhinvali.

South Ossetia made a similar accusation on July 30, and a Reuters reporter heard two loud blasts from the rebel capital Tskhinvali but could not identify the cause.

"In the event of further acts of provocation threatening the population of the republic and the Russian military contingent based in the territory of South Ossetia, the Russian Defense Ministry reserves the right to use all available force and means to defend the citizens of the republic of South Ossetia and Russian servicemen," the ministry said in a statement, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

Russia crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia last August after months of escalating tension, sending tanks deep into Georgia proper and shaking Western confidence in oil and gas routes running through the volatile South Caucasus.

The Georgian Interior Ministry said there had been no shooting from either side of the boundary. The Russian statement "clearly shows very aggressive intent," ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.

He urged the West to pay attention. "The international community should not allow Russia to fool it," he told Reuters.

Like the rebel Black Sea region of Abkhazia, South Ossetia threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In an interview with Reuters, South Ossetia's self-styled president Eduard Kokoity said he wanted Russia to send in more troops and "more serious weaponry," and that his goal was to unite his people with Russia.

The West accused Russia of a "disproportionate" response during last year's war. The European Union brokered a ceasefire and sent in monitors.

Russia recognized the rebel territories as independent states, backed by thousands of Russian troops, although the cease-fire called for a withdrawal to pre-war positions.

The EU monitors are denied access to either rebel region.