Two Georgians Killed in Breakaway Region

TBILISI (Reuters/RFE-RL)–At least two Georgian soldiers were killed and five wounded in artillery fire with separatists in the breakaway region of South Ossetia–Georgian officials said on Wednesday. Overnight fighting has continued unabated in the province despite a truce that was agreed only last Friday.

The clashes erupted just 40 minutes after the Joint Control Commission–the four-party body in charge of monitoring a 12-year-old Georgian-South Ossetian peace agreement–had agreed on steps to defuse tensions in the separatist region.

The overnight fighting officially brought to nine the number of Georgian soldiers reportedly killed in South Ossetia in less than a week. The Ossetian leadership has reported no casualties.

The situation in South Ossetia–which broke away from Georgia after a war in the early 1990s–sharpened this year when newly-elected President Mikhail Saakashvili said he would end its de facto independence and bring it back into the Georgian fold.

The commander of Georgian peacekeepers–deployed in South Ossetia under a 1992 peace deal–accused separatists of launching the attack.

"The fire was intensive–they were shooting throughout the night," Aleko Kiknadze said.

But South Ossetians said they were not the first to shoot.

"Our villages–our positions–again came under fire this night," separatist spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva said. "The Ossetian side was forced to return fire."

South Ossetia accuses Georgia of massing forces in the region and preparing for a military onslaught. Georgia accuses the separatists of recruiting and arming hundreds of volunteers–mainly from southern Russian regions.

Neither side admits responsibility for the overnight attacks.

Peacekeepers–who include servicemen from Georgia–Russia–and South Ossetia–have agreed to hunt down truce violators.

South Ossetian officials have said a "third force"–Georgian hard-liners uncontrolled by the central government–is behind the shootouts.

Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said on Tuesday that South Ossetians had admitted they did not control all armed men on their territory.

Envoys from four parties in the 1992 peace deal–Georgia–Russia–South Ossetia–and the Russian province of North Ossetia–met in Tbilisi on Tuesday to find ways of averting an all-out war in the region.

Participants agreed to continue efforts to enforce a truce. Georgia said it would start withdrawing some forces from South Ossetia if the cease-fire holds.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Georgia not to repeat "stupid" mistakes that triggered war a decade ago–adding that Georgia’s stance risked triggering more war.

"This conflict came about after the fall of the Soviet Union when Georgia–having attained independence–suddenly and unexpectedly announced the end of the autonomous status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," Putin said on state television.

"It was precisely this stupid decision that sparked inter-ethnic conflicts in Georgia. Today we’re seeing a repetition of what happened at the beginning of the 1990s."

"Russia is prepared to do anything it can to regulate and restore the territorial integrity of Georgia–but it is not planning to go beyond what it sees as its function or take sides," Interfax quoted Putin saying in the Black Sea resort of Sochi–a short drive from breakaway Abkhazia.


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