South Ossetia: Russia, Georgia warn of heightened tensions because of the standoff in region

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, the AP reports.

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 were blatant provocation," he said.

Georgia accuses 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 residents Russian citizenship.

Georgia's parliament earlier this year unanimously called for Russian peacekeepers to withdraw from South Ossetia, where they have been stationed since 1992, and be replaced by international forces.

Khaindrava warned Tuesday that tension could tighten if Russian peacekeepers rotating into South Ossetia ignored instructions to enter at a location other than the Roksky tunnel, which he said would be illegal. "If the Russian side tries to carry out the rotation through the Roksky Tunnel, the situation in the conflict zone will sharply escalate and Russia will be entirely to blame," he said.

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