Russia says Georgia on brink of war after clashes with rebels

Other News Materials 7 August 2008 15:11 (UTC +04:00)

Russia accused Georgia of readying for war with its breakaway region of South Ossetia, the foreign ministry said Thursday after a heavy gun fighting overnight in the region, dpa reported.

"Concern was expressed over the actions of the Georgian side right near to Tskhinvali, which can be regarded as military preparations," the ministry said on its website after telephone talks between Russia's deputy foreign minister and South Ossetia's president Eduard Kokoity.

Several people were injured in the shootout overnight at the border of Georgia's rebel region, both sides said Thursday.

Marat Kulakhmetiv, commander of Russian peacekeeping forces, said fighting broke at at 23:40 between Georgian and South Ossetian forces, involving small arms, automatic weapons and mortars.

South Ossetian officials said 18 people, including civilians, were injured by "massive shelling" in and around the capital Tskhinvali, a statement on the region's website said.

The Georgian side reported two injured in the clashes.

Planned peace talks with Russian negotiators in Tbilisi on Thursday fell apart as both sides traded accusations about who initiated the fighting.

Georgia's Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili said separatists "opened fire from hospitals and schools in order to provoke us into returning fire in the direction of their schools and hospitals and then to accuse us of barbaric actions."

"The international community should be seriously concerned over this," he told a news conference Thursday, local media reported

Tensions between Tbilisi and its Russian-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have grown increasingly violent in recent months.

In wake of the fresh clashes, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagshap said the regions' troops were in a state of high alert.

Russia's special envoy Yuri Popov, who arrived in Tbilisi late Wednesday, said in light of the fighting he doubted planned meetings would take place.

"It has emerged that the South Ossetian side questions the expediency of such a meeting," Popov told journalist. "If that's the case, I will have to again conduct shuttle diplomacy between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali."

The United States, Georgia's firm ally, has called for a halt to the violence and decried recent moves by Moscow to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties the two provinces.

Tbilisi views the actions as the creeping annexation of its territory.

Both regions hold de facto independence since a bloody civil war ended in the early 1990s. Under a United Nations ceasefire accord, over 2,500 Russian peacekeepers patrol the region.

Yakobashvili accused Russia on Thursday of arming secessionist troops, saying it should take responsibility for the current clashes.

South Ossetian authorities reported six people dead in weekend fighting around Tskhinvali.