Shelling Clouds Russia Georgia Talks On Separatist Row

MOSCOW (AFP)–Georgian troops and separatist forces in South Ossetia exchanged sporadic shelling and gunfire Wednesday–clouding talks between Russia and Georgia on calming disputes on the status of the pro-Russian region.

"The situation is worrying," said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov after signing a joint communique with his Georgia counterpart Georgy Baramidze–RIA Novosti reported. Baramidze said during a following press briefing that "Russia and Georgia must become predictable neighbors." But he conceded the two sides discussed "uneasy matters" while his top deputy in Tbilisi accused the Russian of opening fire on Georgian troops.

Officials said six people were injured in the cross-border shooting which has grown more frequent as Georgia’s new president–Mikhail Saakashvili–tries to win back control over his fractured republic. "The attack came from armored personnel carries that carried the emblem of Russian peacekeepers" in the region–he said.

All three sides accused each other of launching the attacks first.

"We held negotiations to cease fire–and fighting would stop for 20 minutes–but then it would resume again with greater force," Russian defense ministry spokesman Nikolai Baranov told Rossia television.

The Caucasus republic–once the Soviet Union’s richest–fell into pieces after the superpower’s breakup in 1991–with three regions–Ajaria–South Ossetia and Abkhazia–seeking either independence or rule from Moscow.

Saakashvili has won back Ajaria–a key pocket on the Black Sea that oversees oil trade–with its leader leaving for self-imposed exile in Moscow in May.

But his strategy for the other two regions–which have few ethnic links with Georgia–is unclear.

Military threats from Georgia have been followed by vows to resolve the situation through dialogue–while Moscow issues increasingly aggressive statemen’s as it grows more sensitive to Saakashvili’s drive for military and economic assistance from the United States.

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