Russia urges Georgia to halt clashes in regions

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia urged Georgia on Friday to guarantee with a legal document that its armed forces would not use force in its breakaway regions, after clashes between soldiers and separatists killed two people in South Ossetia.

Moscow demanded a peace pact after the mobilization of reservists by the separatists, who threatened to use heavy weapons against Georgian forces after the two people were killed in heavy exchanges of fire overnight.

Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions broke away from central rule during wars against Tbilisi during the 1990s. Russia, which has peacekeepers in both unrecognized republics, has provided moral and financial support for the rebels.

Since the start of the year Abkhazia, the bigger of the two breakaway republics, has been the main source of tension but this week clashes between Georgian armed forces and separatists have broken out in South Ossetia. The region is 100 km (60 miles) north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

The separatists said 11 people were also wounded in the clashes, most of them civilians. Georgian authorities said there were no dead or wounded on their side.

“We are deeply concerned by the recent events in South Ossetia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian news agency reporters during a trip to Turkmenistan.

“We call for a halt to any provocations, any actions that may trigger further aggravation of the conflict.”

He said that in public Tbilisi said it wanted peace “but by a strange combination of circumstances all this is accompanied by a sharp flare-up in tension.”

Neither Tbilisi nor the separatists admitted violating a ceasefire, blaming the hostilities on one another.

Russia demanded on Friday that its southern neighbor sign a written pledge to avoid conflict.

“It is necessary to convince Tbilisi to sign a legally binding document which would guarantee the non-use of force in the zones of the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts,” Lavrov told Russian news agencies in Ashgabat.

SHELLFIRE

Lavrov’s comments came hours after the rebel region’s officials were quoted by Russia’s Vesti-24 channel saying Georgia had started bombarding the separatist capital Tskhinvali with mortar bombs at about midnight on Thursday.

“Then intensive gunfire followed,” it reported, over video footage of wounded people being operated on in a Tskhinvali hospital.

“This is a well-planned provocation staged by the Georgian side,” separatist leader Eduard Kokoity said in a statement broadcast by Vesti-24.

South Ossetia said it had mobilized its reservists after the overnight hostilities, Interfax news agency quoted the region’s spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva as saying.

“We call on the Georgian side to see reason,” Kokoity said. “Otherwise, we will take a decision to introduce heavy machinery and offensive weapons to terminate all the units illegally deployed in the conflict zone.”

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who wants his ex-Soviet Caucasus state to join NATO and the European Union, sees the re-integration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a top priority.

Tbilisi said it did not believe Kokoity’s threats would materialize.

“This is absolutely inadmissible. If this happens, this will be a violation of all existing (ceasefire) agreements,” said Shota Utiashvili, an official in the Georgian Interior Ministry.

Mamuka Kurashvili, commander of Georgia’s peacekeeping battalion in the conflict zone, told Reuters the Georgian side had returned fire after the separatists launched a heavy bombardment on several Georgian villages.

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