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7 Aug, 2008 14:42

Georgia and South Ossetia announce ceasefire

Georgia and its breakaway republic of South Ossetia have declared a temporary ceasefire in order to hold talks. Russia has agreed to mediate in the discussions. Earlier reports said the capital of the breakaway region, T

Hundreds of people have been evacuated from the area over the last few days, as tension turned into violence, killing at least four people and injuring dozens more.

In his address to the nation on Thursday, Georgia’s President, Mikhail Saakashvili, said he wanted a peaceful resolution to the already tense situation in the region.

“We ask the international community to help stop the shootings. We don't want to give return fire. We ask you to not disturb the integrity of Georgia. We need to do everything to sit down at the table for talks and finally regulate this conflict,” he said.

Earlier, South Ossetian officials said the artillery fire was coming from Georgian villages on the border. They added that more Georgian troops and tanks were approaching the area.

South Ossetia’s Security Council’s Secretary, Anatoly Barankevich, said the Georgian president promised to show ‘maximum restraint’.

“But his words once again have proved to be lies. Under the cover of these announcements, a large amount of armed vehicles are approaching, including tanks and more than a thousand troops,” Barankevich said.

He also said that one Ossetian village was “under heavy shelling for several hours” and parts of it are on fire.

“This all shows that a massive aggression against the South Ossetian republic is beginning,” he said.

On Thursday, after a night of gunfire, the shelling resumed at daybreak. Authorities in the breakaway region said the bombardment started in Georgian-controlled areas over the border, and that they were forced to return fire.

The republic’s president, Eduard Kokoity, said his forces were acting in self defence: “South Ossetia stopped shooting for 40 minutes and Russian peacekeepers attempted to convince Georgia to stop firing. Yet they continue the shooting using heavy artillery and grenades. We opened fire in response,” he said.

Hospitals in South Ossetia began filling up with casualties overnight. Ten civilians and four military officials received treatment.

Georgia reported casualties too, accusing South Ossetia of shelling civilian settlements in the border region.

Georgia's Reintegration Minister, Temur Yakobashvili, insisted South Ossetia began the latest spat. “The secessionist side decided Georgians were trying to occupy the hills, which doesn't correspond to reality. And based on that false information they started to attack Georgian civilian villages,” he said.

Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, called for an end to the violence, saying he is ready for negotiations with the breakaway region. He accused South Ossetia of stirring up violence and thwarting the talks.

Russia has expressed deep concern about the outbreak of shelling. Moscow has now sent envoys to the region to push for negotiations between the two sides.

South Ossetia has been controlled by an unrecognised separatist government since the end of a war with Georgia in the early 1990s.

Tensions in the region have soared in recent months and outbreaks of violence have become increasingly frequent in the border area.

Georgia says it’s an internal affair that can be resolved without outside interference.

But Russia’s Foreign Ministry has warned that if violence escalates, it will move to defend a region where most of the residents hold Russian passports.