Georgia launches attack on rebel region

Georgia has launched an attack on the rebel region of South Ossetia and clashes are taking place near the regional capital Tskhinvali, the Georgian interior ministry said Friday.

"An attack is underway, clashes are taking place outside Tskhinvali," interior ministry spokesman Shota Utyashvili told AFP within hours of reports that Georgia and South Ossetia agreed to meet Friday for talks.

Officials said up to 12 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes Thursday.

Russian news agencies earlier reported renewed artillery fire in South Ossetia's main town overnight Thursday.

"Tskhinvali is being shot at by mortar and heavy weapons from the Georgian villages of Nikozi and Ergneti and some houses are burning," Ria-Novosti news agency quoted an official speaking for Ossetia's ministry of emergency situations as saying.

Ossetian rebel leader Eduard Kokoity accused Georgia of having launched an all-out attack on Tskhinvali.

"The assault of Tskhinvali has started," he told Interfax news agency.

"Violent attacks are underway," Kokoity said, describing the attack on Tskhinvali as a "perfidious and vile" act by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Also, the head of Georgian peacekeepers in the province, General Mamuka Kurashvili, said Friday the Georgian government had decided to "restore constitutional order" in the breakaway region.

In clashes in South Ossetia on Thursday, "up to 10 Georgian soldiers were killed and many were injured," Utyashvili told AFP earlier.

Meanwhile two civilians were killed and two others seriously injured in the South Ossetian village of Khetagurovo after coming under Georgian attack, separatist authorities said on their website.

Georgian officials previously said five service personnel had been injured in two separate incidents Thursday, while South Ossetian authorities said 18 people had been wounded by Georgian fire overnight in the region.

Locals near the conflict zone said they heard heavy fighting, and an AFP reporter saw two columns of Georgian forces approaching South Ossetia from near the Georgian town of Gori.

One column contained 40 trucks full of armed interior ministry troops, some towing heavy artillery pieces, while the other column consisted of about 15 armoured personnel carriers.

"During the day I could hear explosions and gunfire. It was terrifying," Niko Gelomnishvili, a villager leading his cow near a Georgian checkpoint in the village of Megvrekisi, told AFP.

Tensions have soared in South Ossetia since the rebels reported that six people had died in weekend shooting and announced that hundreds of women and children were being evacuated from the region.

In recent months, Moscow and Tbilisi have sparred repeatedly over South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia.

In the latest diplomatic exchanges, Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin accused Georgia of "military preparations" while a top Georgian official said Russia was fuelling the conflict by supplying arms.

Karasin said he was concerned by a Georgian military buildup, Russia's foreign ministry statement said in a statement.

In a conversation with rebel leader Kokoity, "concern was expressed at Georgian actions extremely close to Tskhinvali, which can be considered military preparations," the statement said.

[Source: Agence France Press, Tbilisi, 08Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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