Blast Kills 7 Russian Troops in S. Ossetia

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 4, 2008

MOSCOW, Oct. 3 -- A car bomb exploded outside Russia's military headquarters in South Ossetia on Friday, killing seven soldiers and two others in what leaders of the Kremlin-backed separatist region immediately described as a terrorist attack launched by Georgia.

The blast in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, came amid continuing tensions as a cease-fire deadline approached for Russian troops to withdraw from territory around the breakaway region, which has declared its independence from Georgia.

Russian troops had seized the car in a Georgian village outside South Ossetia and taken it to Tskhinvali to be searched after detaining four individuals who were carrying guns and grenades, Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, the commander of the Russian forces, told the Interfax news agency.

Seven Russian servicemen were killed in the blast, and seven others were wounded, Kulakhmetov said, adding that the wounded were airlifted to military hospitals in Russia. State television showed ambulances rushing from the scene as thick black smoke filled the air.

The death of Russian soldiers could jeopardize a fragile agreement brokered by European leaders last month setting a timetable for the withdrawal of Russian troops from undisputed Georgian territory. Russia invaded Georgia in August after a Georgian attack on South Ossetia killed several Russian peacekeepers stationed there.

The Russian Defense Ministry described the explosion as "a deliberately planned terrorist act," and the Foreign Ministry blamed "certain forces" trying to destabilize the area and undermine the cease-fire, the official RIA Novosti news agency said.

The South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, was more direct. "The latest terrorist attacks in South Ossetia prove that Georgia has not renounced its policy of state terrorism," he said. "We have no doubt that these terrorist acts are the work of Georgia special forces."

The Georgian government denied the allegation and accused Russia of masterminding the attack to justify a new delay in withdrawing its troops. "If provocations and tensions are in the interest of anyone, it's the Russians," Shota Utiashvili, the Interior Ministry spokesman, told the Reuters news agency. "They are doing everything not to pull troops out within the set term."

Kulakhmetov said Russian soldiers in Tskhinvali were searching two cars that had been seized in the Georgian village of Ditsa when a device in one of the cars detonated with the power of about 50 pounds of dynamite. The four individuals detained with the cars appeared to be ethnic Georgians, he said, and two of them died in the explosion.

A South Ossetian spokeswoman, Irina Gagloeva, said the blast appeared to have been triggered remotely and damaged buildings more than a quarter-mile away.

South Ossetian authorities also reported that a local official narrowly escaped an assassination attempt earlier in the day when a roadside bomb exploded near his car.

Russia has recognized South Ossetia and another separatist Georgian enclave, Abkhazia, as independent nations and argued that its troops are needed in buffer zones around the two regions to prevent attacks from Georgia.

But in a deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed last month to pull the troops from the buffer zones back into South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Oct. 11 and allow European observers to take their place.

Some troops have already been withdrawn, and European monitors arrived in the region this week despite a lingering dispute over whether they will be allowed to operate inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

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