Two dead as Georgia ceasefire crumbles

TBILISI (AFP)–Two Georgian servicemen were killed and other casualties were reported–officials said–in clashes that left a three-day-old ceasefire in the breakaway region of South Ossetia in tatters.

A spokesman for the Georgian interior ministry said the soldiers died after coming under mortar and automatic weapons fire from irregular forces from the South Ossetian territory.

The spokesman–Guram Donadze–also claimed that 15 Ossetian fighters were killed in return fire from Georgian forces–but a South Ossetian spokeswoman denied any fatalities.

"Fortunately–no one was killed," in the overnight fighting–South Ossetia spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency. She added however that three civilians had been hurt.

RIA Novosti and other Russian news agencies confirmed the deaths on the Georgian side and said that Georgian forces had also fired shells into a district of South Ossetia’s main city–Tskhinvali–as well as three other nearby villages.

A spokesman for the joint Georgian-Russian-Ossetian peacekeeping force in South Ossetia was quoted by ITAR-TASS news agency as saying that the firing "came from both sides and involved machine guns–mortars and grenade launchers."

The violence came three days after a ceasefire signed by the conflicting parties as well as Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe went into effect in a renewed drive to defuse the crisis in the region.

"We can say that the ceasefire has been practically violated," said Konstantin Kochiyev–an adviser to South Ossetia’s self-styled president.

Tensions have soared and clashes have repeatedly broken out in the area over the past two months as Georgia has stepped up pressure to bring separatist regions back under its thumb. In June–President Mikhail Shaakashvili won a local election in Adjara which returned control over the renegade region to Georgia.

Inhabited mainly by ethnic Ossetians–South Ossetia has enjoyed de facto independence after an armed conflict with Tbilisi following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Leaders in South Ossetia have demanded either their own state or else separation from Georgia and direct governance from Moscow.

Speaking to reporters in Tbilisi–Georgian Defense Minister Georgy Baramidze warned that the conflict could worsen.

"There is unfortunately a real danger of war breaking out in the region," he said.

Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said Georgia was calling on the international community to step in and help break the deadlock.

Georgia wanted the OSCE executive to hold an urgent meeting in the coming days on the situation in South Ossetia and President Mikhail Saakashvili would talk with other leaders about organizing an international conference on the conflict–he said.

"We are looking for a peaceful resolution," Zhvania said–adding that he was prepared to sit down for talks with South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoity.

Georgian and Ossetian forces had already traded gunfire and shelling during the night both Saturday and Sunday–when Tbilisi reported seven Georgian soldiers had been wounded in the clashes.

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