Russia, Georgia warn of tense situation in South Ossetia

Russia and Georgia warned of a serious spike in tensions in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia Tuesday, after an armed standoff between a Georgian military unit and Russian peacekeepers over the weekend. A Georgian Interior Ministry special unit confronted Russian peacekeepers on Saturday, with both sides drawing weapons before the Georgian troops withdrew, Russian and Georgian officials said.

Georgy Khaindrava , Georgia 's minister for conflict resolution, said the incident occurred outside the so-called "zone of conflict" in South Ossetia , where Russian, Georgian and Ossetian peacekeepers are helping keep the peace. The region broke away from the central government following a war in the 1990s and Tbilisi has repeatedly announced its intention to reassert control. Khaindrava blamed Russian troops for sparking the standoff by not allowing a Georgian police patrol to enter the village of Kurta .

Russia 's Foreign Ministry called the incident a "provocation aimed at destabilizing the situation in the conflict zone," and Russian Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of the peacekeeping forces, said violence was averted only because of Russian peacekeepers' restraint. "In general, members of special units are able to be in the zone of conflict to guarantee security. But the actions that we're talking about here was a blatant provocation," he said.

Georgia accuses the Russian peacekeepers of siding with separatists in South Ossetia , as well as in another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Moscow has close ties with the leadership of both provinces and has granted many of their residents Russian citizenship.

Georgia 's parliament earlier this year unanimously called for Russian peacekeepers to be withdrawn from South Ossetia , where they have been stationed since 1992, and be replaced by international forces. Russian military officials on Tuesday also accused the Georgians of trying to halt a planned rotation of peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia .

Khaindrava said the Russians had ignored instructions to cross the border at a certain location and appeared intent on entering South Ossetia illegally through the Roksky tunnel on the Georgian-Russian border. "If the Russian side tries to carry out the rotation through the Roksky Tunnel, then the situation in the conflict zone will sharply escalate and Russia will be entirely to blame," he said.

Ties between Moscow and Tbilisi have cooled markedly since President Mikhail Saakashvili swept to power more than two years ago during Rose Revolution. Saakashvili has openly courted the United States and other Western nations, seeking membership in the European Union and NATO, reports the AP.

N.U.

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