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Violence flares in Georgia

In breakaway South Ossetia, at least 15 civilians are slain and national forces bomb the republic's capital.

August 08, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Heavy fighting erupted in Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia overnight, as national troops backed by warplanes bombed the republic's capital and local officials reported mounting civilian casualties.

The clashes in the remote region of the Caucasus, which raged unabated into this morning, broke out just hours after the two sides had declared a cease-fire. The attacks are the most serious to date in a series of escalating confrontations between U.S.-backed Georgia and Russia-backed South Ossetia.

The United Nations Security Council called an emergency session late Thursday night in hope of stopping the violence.

"It is still not too late to avoid a massive bloodshed and new victims," Russian Foreign Ministry official Boris Malakhov told Vesti24 television. "We also consider that our foreign partners and the international community will not remain uninvolved. . . . It is indispensable to stop violence that may bring the most serious results for regional and international security."

Accounts from the scene of the fighting were confusing and contradictory. The clashes had spread to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali; at least 15 civilians had been killed and the parliamentary building was on fire, according to reports from the South Ossetian side.

A spokeswoman for the republic told Interfax news agency that two people were killed and eight wounded in the capital overnight. Soviet-made Georgian warplanes were attacking South Ossetia, Russian peacekeepers told Interfax.

Georgian news reported that South Ossetian villages were falling under Georgian control.

South Ossetian officials told Interfax that there were "mass victims" of Georgian bombing in villages near Tskhinvali. Other reports counted 15 dead. Each side accused the other of shelling civilian areas.

The fighting in the republic carries serious geopolitical weight, tapping into simmering neo-Cold War tensions as Russia and the United States are competing for influence in strategically vital lands of the former Soviet Union.

Moscow has given South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebel republic, political and economic backing in its drive to separate from Georgia. Russian peacekeepers are stationed in the republics, and Moscow has granted passports to many residents who would otherwise live as de facto stateless citizens.

Georgia, meanwhile, has turned to the West, accepting U.S. backing and vying, to the annoyance of Moscow, for membership in NATO.

The breakaway republics have long been a sore spot for Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili has vowed to bring the territories back into the country, but had always said he would do it without resorting to violence.

Tensions ramped up significantly this year, after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. At the time, Russia warned that the precedent would destabilize other breakaway regions. Since then, Georgia has accused Moscow of tampering in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in order to fuel trouble.

The provisional parliament of South Ossetia called on Russia for help overnight, Interfax reported.

"We hope and expect Russia's immediate intervention because 90% of those living in the republic are Russian citizens," said Dmitry Medoyev, the official representative of South Ossetia in Moscow.

The army of nearby Abkhazia, which also has had increasingly tense relations with Georgia's government, was headed toward the Georgian border, according to news reports.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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