TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili threatened on Tuesday to abandon a deal that has kept the peace for a decade in one of two Georgian regions lost to separatists.
Leaders in South Ossetia–immediately responded by saying such a move could lead to a new war.
Saakashvili questioned a 1992 accord that sent peacekeepers to South Ossetia–where tension has risen between Georgian authorities and separatist leaders who want to join Russia. Georgia and Russia accuse each other of undermining the deal.
The president criticized provisions of the agreement–signed by his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze–banning the Georgian flag from areas patrolled by peacekeepers.
"I heard recently–and one of the Russian peacekeepers confirmed this–that in the center of Kartli (in South Ossetia) raising the Georgian flag is considered illegal," Saakashvili said.
"If the previous Georgian authorities–representatives of Shevardnadze’s regime–signed such agreemen’s then we intend to withdraw from them and denounce these documen’s."
Since leading a bloodless revolution to oust Shevardnadze and winning election in January–Saakashvili has made restoring central authority over all Georgian territory a policy priority.
The president was speaking on Tuesday to the newly elected local assembly in Ajaria–a Georgian region on the Black Sea where he forced local leader Abashidze from office in May.
Saakashvili hopes to capitalize on that to bring mountainous South Ossetia and Abkhazia–another Black Sea region–back under central control.
But that is proving more difficult as–unlike Ajaria–both areas have formally declared independence and are populated mostly by non-Georgians.
Eduard Kokoity–the leader of unrecognized South Ossetia–said Saakashvili’s commen’s "could lead to a new war.
"It is thanks to this very agreement that conflict was halted in 1992," he told Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency.
Russia counseled caution.
"All these years–the agreemen’s reached around the Georgian-Ossetian conflict have upheld stability," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said in Moscow.
"There are no other mechanisms. Clearly–it would be improper to abandon them."
The 1992 agreement set up a peacekeeping force with troops from Russia–Georgia and South Ossetia itself.
But the accord has looked shaky in recent weeks–as Georgia has accused Russian peacekeepers of siding with separatists and trying to arm them–while Moscow has accused Georgia of trying to trigger a military confrontation in South Ossetia.
Representatives of the three sides met in Moscow last week for talks–which ended with little progress.
This week–Saakashvili briefly visited by night–a region adjoining South Ossetia– a move criticized by Russia as unhelpful in trying to firm up peace.
Earlier this month–he told military graduates that Georgia wanted peace–but in the event of outside aggression–"we will meet it with aggression. Great battles await Georgia."