By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 24, 2008
MOSCOW, Nov. 24 -- The presidents of Georgia and Poland said they encountered gunfire while attempting to visit a Russian checkpoint near the South Ossetian border on Sunday, an assertion Russia immediately denied and described as a provocation and "wishful thinking."
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and visiting Polish President Lech Kaczynski said Russian troops fired machine guns as the leaders' motorcade approached a checkpoint near the breakaway province of South Ossetia, which Moscow recognized as an independent state after defeating Georgia in a five-day war in August.
No one was injured, and it was unclear whether the shots were aimed at the motorcade or fired into the air, the presidents said at a news conference in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
"The reality is you are dealing with unpredictable people," Saakashvili said. "They weren't happy to see our guest, and they weren't happy to see me either."
Russian and South Ossetian authorities denied any shooting occurred and accused the two presidents of deliberate provocation by making the unannounced visit to the checkpoint outside the town of Akhalgori.
"This is one more instance of wishful thinking on the part of Georgia," Grigory Karasin, a Russian deputy foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying that Russian personnel fired no shots, "least of all in the direction of Georgian territory." South Ossetian officials also denied firing any shots.
But several witnesses traveling with Saakashvili and Kaczynski reported hearing automatic gunfire, though they said it was unclear from which direction it came.
Kaczynski said the incident highlighted the ineffectiveness of the French-brokered cease-fire agreement that ended the war.
"I appeal from this spot to my friends in the European Union to draw the proper conclusions from this event before it is too late," said Kaczynski, a firm backer of Georgia.
An E.U. team is monitoring the cease-fire, which called for Russia and Georgia to withdraw troops to positions held before the war. Russian forces have withdrawn from much of Georgia but have reinforced positions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region.