MOSABRUNI, Georgia (Reuters) – Russian forces pushed Georgian police out of a disputed village on the de facto South Ossetian border on Tuesday after a tense stand-off that underlined the fragility of their peace.
The Russian advance followed several days of posturing by heavily armed Georgian special police and South Ossetian separatists at positions a few hundred meters (yards) apart near the village of Mosabruni.
The area is mainly populated by Georgians. Russian troops pulled out of the village last week after pouring over Russia’s southern border this month to repel an offensive by Georgian forces to retake South Ossetia from pro-Moscow separatists.
Georgian police and separatist soldiers had been jostling to fill the vacuum before Russian soldiers backed by a low-flying Mi-24 helicopter gunship rolled back into the village and ordered the Georgian police to pull out.
The move coincided with an announcement by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that Moscow had decided to recognize South Ossetia and Georgia’s other rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states.
The stand-off in Mosabruni is indicative of the potential for renewed conflict in a region where Georgian and Ossetian villages sit side-by-side and militias control the roads.
“Is this a normal life?” asked Iza Mikhanishvili, 31, an ethnic Georgian who lives with her Ossetian husband in Mosabruni, a village of about 50 ramshackle wooden and stone cottages.
BEER AND VODKA
“We are afraid our children will be killed,” she said. “The only thing we want is peace. I don’t care who we are with, Russia or Georgia. People are dying.”
With the Russian advance, Georgian police in fatigues emerged from behind scrub on the hillside, jumped into green pick-up trucks and pulled back. A Russian armored personnel carrier continued several hundred meters down the road to make sure of their retreat.
The Russians had first passed through a South Ossetian checkpoint, manned by scruffy, well-armed irregulars. The Ossetians drank vodka and beer from tin cups at the “commander’s” table.
Both sides accused the other of trying to seize the area by force.
“They (the Georgians) are trying to force out the Ossetian population. It is our territory,” Irina Gagloyeva, head of the separatist administration’s Press and Information Committee, told Reuters.
An hour before the Georgian withdrawal, two Georgian government vehicles drove up to the South Ossetian checkpoint in an apparent bid to negotiate an end to the stand-off.
They left after 30 minutes. Asked if there had been a deal, a senior Georgian police officer said: “What deal? The Russians just turned up without a word”.
The U.N. refugee agency voiced concern on Tuesday at reports of “marauding militias” and lawlessness north of the Georgian town Gori in the so-called buffer zone along the border with South Ossetia.
Some 400 newly displaced people who gathered in Gori’s main square after fleeing their villages reported that “some had been beaten, harassed and robbed” and that three people had been killed by the militias, the UNHCR said in a statement.