Russia says Georgian jets overflew rebel region

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia accused Georgia of sending warplanes into a Georgia’s separatist region of South Ossetia overnight, an allegation swiftly denied by Tbilisi.

Tension between Georgian forces and separatists has risen in recent days in South Ossetia, one of two breakaway Georgian regions which the West fears could trigger a wider conflict.

The Interfax news agency quoted the assistant commander of Russia’s peacekeepers in South Ossetia on Wednesday as saying military jets flew eight missions over the region after taking off from the Georgian city of Gori on Tuesday evening.

“The appearance of warplanes in the conflict zone is a rude violation (of existing agreements),” Vladimir Ivanov said.

South Ossetians say Georgian forces have been firing on their villages, forcing the evacuation of women and children into Russia. Weekend clashes in the region killed several people and fuelled fears Georgia was preparing to strike.

Georgia, whose minister for reintegration is due to meet officials in South Ossetia on Thursday, has rejected allegations that Tbilisi is behind the increased violence and denied Georgian warplanes had flown over the rebel region.

“That’s not true. It’s another in a series of lies,” Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said. “The separatists together with the Russian peacekeepers are trying to create an alternative reality,” he told Reuters.

South Ossetia, a mountainous valley only a few hours drive from Tbilisi, and the Black Sea region of Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Both enjoy financial and political support from Moscow and the vast majority of locals have Russian citizenship.

The rebel regions lie in a belt of land in the Caucasus that is emerging as a transit route for oil and gas exports from the Caspian Sea, a strategically important region over which the United States and Russia are locked in a battle for influence.

FRESH VIOLENCE

Russia has peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia and says they are needed to avert a new war. On Tuesday Moscow said it would not be indifferent if there was further violence on its border.

South Ossetia’s Web site, www.cominfo.org, accused Georgia of shelling a law enforcement outpost on Tuesday night and initiating a shootout on Wednesday.

“The shooting began about 11.50 a.m. (3:50 a.m. EDT) from the Georgian populated village of Nuli,” it said on the Web site.

“Fire is coming from a sniper rifle and high-caliber machine guns. A decision by the South Ossetia security structures has been taken to suppress the enemy firing positions.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Utiashvili denied Georgian involvement in the shelling and shooting.

Pro-Western Georgia accuses Moscow of backing the separatists and harboring plans to annex South Ossetia to punish Georgia for wanting to join NATO. Moscow rejects the charge.

Tbilisi wants the Russian peacekeepers replaced by an international force, saying Moscow’s troops are not impartial.

Last month Russia sent its warplane to fly over South Ossetia in a move it said was needed to discourage Georgians from striking the separatists. Georgia has denies such plans.

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