Separatist violence flares in Republic of Georgia

Tensions rise as president seeks control over 2 areas

August 05, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW - Separatist tensions flared in the Republic of Georgia yesterday, with violence reported in South Ossetia a day after President Mikhail Saakashvili threatened to sink ships approaching the country's other separatist region, Abkhazia.

The threat to ships in the Black Sea, including those ferrying Russian passengers, prompted pointed warnings from Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei B. Ivanov, who said that Saakashvili's threat, if carried out, would amount to piracy.

In South Ossetia, gunfire erupted near the village of Sarabuk, not far from the regional capital, Tskhinvali. A member of Russia's parliament, Andrei A. Kokoshin, who was leading a Russian delegation in the region, told the Interfax news agency that his convoy "came under intense fire," an incident certain to further roil relations between Russia and Georgia.

Georgia denied that its forces were involved in any fighting in the region, which came only days after a heavy shelling and exchanges of gunfire around Tskhinvali on July 29. A spokesman for Georgia's Interior Ministry, Guram Donadze, blamed militias in South Ossetia for the shooting, which was captured in television images by journalists traveling with the delegation.

"Our position is that this was a gross provocation on the part of the Ossetians," he said in a telephone interview, though Russia's Foreign Ministry later blamed Georgian troops who, it said, had infiltrated the region.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in the latest violence, but the clashes, threats and counterthreats underscored growing tensions in and around Georgia as Saakashvili's new government continues its efforts to assert sovereignty over the two regions.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and exist in an unrecognized state of independence, though both maintain close ethnic, social and economic ties to Russia. Many of Abkhazia's 250,000 residents and South Ossetia's 70,000 have Russian passports, allowing them to cross Russia's southern frontier freely. Russia also has troops in both regions.

Russia's involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - or, from Georgia's perspective, interference - has soured Saakashvili's studied efforts to improve relations with President Vladimir V. Putin in the months since he ousted Georgia's long-serving president, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, in a popular uprising in November.

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