One Year Later, Tensions Reignite Between Russia and Georgia

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 2, 2009

MOSCOW, Aug. 1 -- Russia accused Georgia on Saturday of firing mortars and grenades into South Ossetia and warned that it would defend the separatist territory with "all available forces and means" as tensions mounted ahead of the anniversary of last year's war.

Georgia condemned Russia's assertion as "groundless and misleading," saying it was aimed at "further destabilizing the situation and causing the unfolding of a dangerous scenario of events."

Calling for restraint on all sides, the European Union's monitoring mission in the region said it had seen "no evidence to confirm that any firing has taken place toward Tskhinvali or its surroundings," referring to the South Ossetian capital.

The exchange of tough words came less than a week before the anniversary of the start of last year's war between Russia and Georgia. How that brief conflict began remains in dispute, but in the weeks leading up to the fighting, both nations engaged in rhetoric similar to Saturday's.

In a statement, the E.U. monitoring mission expressed "serious concern about the escalation of accusations" at "this particularly sensitive time."

The mission also noted that its unarmed patrols are blocked from entering South Ossetia and said it needed access to areas "where the incidents are purported to have taken place" in order to make a "more complete assessment of the situation on the ground."

The Russian Defense Ministry said that Georgia has repeatedly fired on Tskhinvali and its suburbs since Wednesday and that it targeted an observation outpost manned by South Ossetian soldiers in an attempt to "escalate tensions."

"Events developed according to a similar scenario in August 2008 and led to Georgia unleashing military aggression against South Ossetia and attacking the Russian peacekeeping contingent," the ministry said in a statement.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry said the Russian statement was "an undisguised threat" and urged the world to respond. It blamed Russia for "an increasing number of provocative incidents" in the disputed region.

Sniper fire is common along the de facto border between Georgian-controlled territory and South Ossetia, which Russia recognizes as an independent state. But the shooting appeared to escalate Wednesday night, when journalists reported hearing two loud explosions near Tskhinvali.

South Ossetian authorities said two mortar rounds had been fired toward residential buildings from the Georgian village of Zemo Nikozi. The Georgian government said South Ossetian forces had fired the mortars toward the village, where Georgian police are stationed.

The dispute flared less than a week after Vice President Biden visited Georgia in a show of U.S. support for the former Soviet republic.

During the visit, Georgian officials urged the United States to join the E.U. monitors, the only independent observers left in the region after Russia forced two other international missions to depart.

But an unnamed Russian diplomat was quoted by the Interfax news agency last week as saying U.S. participation in the mission would be "extremely harmful."


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