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7 Aug, 2008 00:24

Georgia and South Ossetia exchange fire

An official from Russia’s Foreign Ministry has arrived in Tbilisi in an effort to bring Georgia and its breakaway republic of South Ossetia to the negotiating table. It follows a night of violence in which both sides exchanged fire.

South Ossetia says several people have been injured after Georgia launched artillery attacks on two villages.

The number of casualties has yet to be confirmed.

There's been shelling and skirmishes almost every day since Friday when six people were killed.
Both South Ossetia and Georgia blame each other for provoking the military action.

The leader of the self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, said the situation is “very serious”.

“Georgia has tried to build a fortified structure, a block post near the Nuli village. Our reaction to such actions will be very tough because we see them as bandits who open fire on our civilians,” he said.

“Russia is putting in a great deal of effort to promote the idea of peace talks. We treat such initiatives with understanding and believe they are necessary.”

But the South Ossetian leader ruled out direct negotiations with Georgia, saying “we insist on the talks including Russia and North Ossetia. We will not hold one-to-one discussions with Georgia,” Kokoity said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry says urgent action is needed.  Deputy spokesman Boris Malakhov said Russia “is acting as a constructive and responsible mediator, the aim of which is to diminish the tensions, to restart the negotiating process aimed at settling of the conflict”.

Earlier on Wednesday Tbilisi denied firing at South Ossetia, claiming the violence is designed to wrongly portray Georgia as being aggressive.

The South Ossetian president says he has information that Georgia is planning a large-scale intervention starting in September. Kokoity has ordered around 500 reservists to be called in to swell the ranks of the South Ossetian police force.

He also says a number of volunteers from Russia have said they’re ready to help if Georgia attacks.

“We have an influx of volunteers coming into the republic. So far we see no necessity for them. But those who are arriving are being organised into army units. These units will be under the command of our Defence Ministry,” Kokoity said. 

Since the beginning of August, the situation in the conflict zone has intensified.

Around three thousand people have been evacuated from their homes following last week's artillery exchanges. Six people were killed and thirteen injured in sniper and mortar fire between the two sides.

South Ossetia declared independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s. Georgia rejected the move, saying the region is part of its territory. The resulting armed conflict killed thousands and forced many to leave their homes.

Since the end of the conflict relations have remained tense.