TBILISI (Reuters)–Tensions grew in Georgia on Thursday after some of its soldiers were seized in the breakaway region of South Ossetia–while Russia accused Georgia’s leadership of goading its wayward province into retaliation.
Georgian officials also said an armed group opened fire on a Georgian peacekeeping checkpoint–wounding two soldiers and kidnapping one of them.
The clashes in South Ossetia were the latest flare-up since President Mikhail Saakashvili moved to restore central control over separatist regions that seek closer ties with Russia.
A police official near the region–that lies north-west of Tbilisi on the border with Russia–said about 50 Georgian Interior Ministry troops had been held.
In Moscow–the Russian foreign ministry sided with the South Ossetians–blaming the Saakashvili leadership for "unlawful and provocative actions in the Georgian-Ossetia zone of conflict."
"Tbilisi is ignoring the fact that a sharpening of the crisis puts the people of South Ossetia–most of whom are Russian citizens–under a serious security threat," a ministry statement said.
Tensions began to flare in South Ossetia after Georgia sent troops to the internal border with the region in early June– to protect anti-smuggling checkpoints.
Then–in an incident that prompted a sharp reaction from Moscow Wednesday–Georgian troops seized an arms convoy which it said was carrying rocket launchers intended for separatists.
Russia’said the weapons were intended for the members of its peacekeeping force.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania–who announced the armed attack and kidnapping at a checkpoint between the villages of Tamarasheni and Kurta–accused the South Ossetian leadership of stirring up armed conflict. "We will never allow a repetition of the tragedy that we witnessed in 1991," said Zhvania.
The region broke from Georgia after a war at the end of Soviet rule in 1991. Uneasy peace has reigned since–supervised by a peacekeeping force from Georgia–South Ossetia and Russia.
Saakashvili–who says he is striving to end awkward relations with Russia–has secured the removal of a local strongman in another wayward region–Ajaria–which had considerable autonomy but never declared independence.
Since his election early this year–Saakashvili has set his sights on restoring central control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia–a breakaway region on the Black Sea.
Moscow aligns itself with the international view that both these regions are part of Georgian territory and it has never offered to take them into the Russian Federation.
At the same time–it has often backed them in disputes with the Tbilisi leadership and has allowed many of their people Russian citizenship.