At least six dead in clashes in South Ossetia

Georgia Materials 2 August 2008 18:50 (UTC +04:00)

At least six people have been reported killed in the heaviest fighting in years in the Georgian breakaway republic of South Ossetia, the dpa reported.

The heavy exchange of fire between Georgian troops and South- Ossetian insurgents also saw at least 15 people wounded, the Russian Interfax news agency reported.

It was not immediately clear to which side the fatalities belonged.

The latest fighting, which erupted Friday, centred near the South Ossetian capital Tskinvali, with the leader of the separatist southern Caucusus region, Eduard Kokoity, saying Friday Georgian soldiers were shelling the city and firing high-calibre weapons.

Georgia for its part has accused Russia of involvement in the skirmishes on the South-Ossetian side, an allegation which a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry described as a "filthy provocation."

Russia is "most-deeply concerned" by the mortar and sniper fire and urges both sides to exercise restraint, he said.

South Ossetia's de-facto government, which has not won international recognition, held a special session and ordered its troops on high alert.

"If Georgia provokes us again , we will respond with all force available," said a spokesman for the de-facto cabinet in Tskinvali.

The Georgian government in Tbilisi had earlier accused South Ossetia of sparking the latest clashes.

South Ossetia's de-facto authorities evacuated a number of places in the conflict area, sending mainly women, children and elderly people to the Russian federal republic of North Ossetia, the RIA Nowosti news agency reported.

The breakaway region had rejected a European Union mediation offer in July, demanding that in addition to Georgian, North-Ossetian representatives should be present at any talks.

Georgia, whose relations with Russia have been tense over the dispute, has said it has a right under international law to South Ossetia, which has fought for international recognition of its unilaterally-declared independence since its breakaway in the early 1990s.

The conflict in the Georgian break-away regions of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia has in the past witnessed deadly shootings and bomb attacks. Observers were not ruling out a new escalation.