Georgia Offers South Ossetia Pull Out

(BBC NEWS)–Georgia has offered to withdraw all but its official peacekeeping troops from the conflict zone in South Ossetia after further heavy shelling there. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said his forces had captured key positions near the breakaway republic’s capital Tskhinvali.

He said the forces were ready to hand them over to the peacekeeping force–which includes Ossetians and Russia’s.

At least seven Georgian soldiers have died in the latest fighting.

Despite Saakashvili’s offer–residents of Tskhinvali reported stray bullets hitting the city’s central square on Thursday. Earlier–artillery and mortar fire rocked South Ossetia–stifling efforts to enforce a ceasefire.

Saakashvili called his offer "the last chance for peace" in South Ossetia. A ceasefire deal reached last Friday has now been violated for five nights in a row–as pro-Russian South Ossetian separatists battle Georgian troops.

South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in 1992 following an 18-month conflict. Many of its inhabitants want to link up with North Ossetia–which is part of Russia.

Saakashvili said Georgian troops had come under fire from several hilltop positions–but on Thursday morning "one of our units managed to rout this force and capture these hilltop positions".

"We are ready to hand over control of these positions to the tripartite peacekeeping contingent–which also includes Georgians–and leave 500 of our select fighters under our peacekeeping force quota to protect Georgian villages against attacks and possible acts of provocation," he said.

"We are also ready to withdraw from all other positions and redeploy our forces outside the conflict zone in Gori."

Saakashvili said Georgia had sent extra troops to South Ossetia to combat smuggling–and this had "prompted vicious attacks on this contingent."

The Georgian authorities say their troops killed eight South Ossetian fighters in the latest overnight fighting. The claim has not been confirmed.

The Georgian president has said the international community should play an active role in peace talks.

He called on world leaders to hold a conference on the future of South Ossetia and send Western peacekeepers to the region.

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