TBILISI (Reuters/AFP)–An artillery bombardment has left three Georgian soldiers dead and other people hurt as villages in South Ossetia came under fire on Thursday in a violent escalation of Georgia’s dispute with its breakaway province.
"It’s obvious that the South Ossetian leadership and some other forces are trying to involve us in a military conflict," Georgia’s parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanadze said.
"Our soldiers were defending their positions and peaceful residents. We are going to do our best to keep the peace and to escape war," Burdzhanadze told journalists.
Georgia says South Ossetia must submit to rule from Tbilisi–but after a separatist war in 1992–local leaders reject any overtures from the central government–preferring to look to Moscow for support for their de facto independence.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has already overthrown one local strongman’since winning a landslide election victory in January–but he faces far stiffer resistance in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia–another separatist region.
Russia–Georgia–and the self-proclaimed South Ossetian administration run a joint peacekeeping force in South Ossetia–but mounting rhetoric and easy access to guns had fuelled fears that violence might shatter the fragile peace.
"All night Georgian villages and Georgian peacekeepers’ positions have been under massive artillery fire–coming from various types of guns," Aleko Kiknadze–the Georgian peacekeepers’ commander–told Reuters early on Thursday.
"Three are dead from our side," Georgia’s Deputy Security Minister Gigi Ugulava said.
But a spokeswoman for the unrecognized South Ossetian government said the Georgians had opened fire first–bombarding a hospital in the capital Tskhinvali.
"They’ve been shooting at us all night?It’s the start of the war," Irina Gagloyeva told Reuters.
A member of a local non-governmental organization told Reuters by telephone that some people at the hospital had been wounded–but there was no word on any deaths.
Russian television showed the blackened tail-fin of a mortar bomb lying under a smashed apartment window and doctors comforting children in the dilapidated hospital.
"We have new-born babies here. We all went down into the basement. I’ve never seen and heard anything so terrible in my life," Dr. Tinatin Zakharova told the state TV station Rossiya.
South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity–dressed in camouflage fatigues–also appeared on Rossiya–calling for emergency talks–a suggestion immediately backed by Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
Col. Nikolai Baranov–spokesman for Russian peacekeepers in the disputed region–said the force had done all it could to stop the fighting.
"Our headquarters held talks with the South Ossetian and Georgian leadership and managed to stop the shooting for a time during the night–but it soon restarted with even greater intensity," he told Russian state television.
Russian peacekeepers said they had plotted the firing position of the guns which had bombarded South Ossetian villages–Interfax news agency reported.
South Ossetia’s defense chief Ibragim Gassiyev told Interfax that Georgian forces had destroyed the South Ossetian village of Andisi–wounding two people. He also said Georgian armor was moving to the border with South Ossetia.
President Saakashvili is warning against "ethnic cleansing" in the region. "We must not allow for ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population or a humanitarian catastrophe," he said.
Saakashvili says his government faces three major challenges at present: to ensure the safety of the civilian population in South Ossetia–to halt smuggling and other economic crime–and to prevent the conflict in Ossetia from expanding.
"We must not permit outside forces to create a scenario that would drag Georgia into a large-scale military conflict," he said.
He did not specify which outside forces he meant.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshinin has also sounded an alarm over the latest developmen’s in the region.
"The situation is worsening by the hour and could spin out of control at any moment," he said.
Russia has proposed an emergency meeting of a tripartite Georgian-Ossetian-Russian commission charged with resolving the dispute.
Prime minister Zurab Zhvania said Europe and the US must help resolve the escalating military conflict between his former Soviet republic and pro-Russian forces in separatist South Ossetia.
"We are asking the international community to use its influence to help launch high-level negotiations," Zhvania told reporters. He said Georgia still wants to engage in direct negotiations with the separatists in the presence of Russian representatives–as all sides work to figure out a way to end a flare of fighting in the volatile Caucasus.