Russia examines rail link to South Ossetia

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is considering blasting a railway line through the Caucasus mountains to link up with South Ossetia, the breakaway region of Georgia over which Moscow and Tbilisi fought a war in August.

Proposals for the link, reminiscent of an abandoned Soviet era plan, seem certain to anger pro-Western Georgia, which accuses Russia of annexing South Ossetia and a second Moscow- backed region, Abkhazia. Russia recognized both as independent states in September after a war that saw Russian forces sweep Georgian troops from South Ossetia and push into core Georgia.

“This initiative has been assigned to us,” said the president of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin. “We have looked at various possible projects.”

“Today we have a project that would build a connection from the Russian railway network to the South Ossetian railway network and on to (the regional capital of) Tskhinvali,” Yakunin told a press briefing.

The project involves building 140-150 km (90 miles) of railway lines and the construction of four tunnels to take it through the Caucasus mountains, he said.

Asked by a reporter if the project was motivated by politics or economics, Yakunin said: “Railway men don’t just talk about infrastructure, they act to bring nations together. In the countries of the former Soviet Union it has always been this way.”

The Soviet Union planned in the early 1980s to build a railway through the Caucasus Mountains from Vladikavkaz in southern Russia to Tbilisi in Georgia. The line could have linked up with an east-west railway through Georgia linking the Black Sea with the Caspian in Soviet Azerbaijan.

Yakunin made it clear the line would take a different route through the high and craggy terrain, which has always been a stark hindrance to commerce and trade in the region.

“There was one really old project from the Soviet days that we considered. After review we realized it is very expensive and very hard to realize,” he said.

PIPELINE

Georgians may balk at construction of the link, which would consolidate Russia’s hold over South Ossetia. But in extending to Tskhinvali, it would come very close to Georgia’s east-west link and could arguably offer benefits for both Russia and Georgia in more peaceful times.

Months of skirmishes between separatists and Georgian troops erupted into war in August when Georgia sent troops and tanks to retake Moscow-backed South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi’s rule in 1991-92.

Russia responded with a powerful counter-strike that drove the Georgian army out of South Ossetia. Moscow’s troops then pushed further into Georgia, saying they needed to prevent further Georgian attacks.

European Union monitors entered a Russian-controlled buffer zone around South Ossetia for the first time on Wednesday in what they said was a smooth start to a peacekeeping operation.

Russian state gas giant Gazprom is building a pipeline to South Ossetia, Russian aid accounts for much of the budgets of the separatist administrations and the Kremlin plans to station a total of 7,600 troops in the two regions.

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