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New Violence Threatens Fragile Cease-Fire in South Ossetia - 2004-08-16


Officials in the former Soviet republic of Georgia say two of their peacekeepers have been killed in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, threatening a cease-fire agreed last weekend. The violence is the latest in a series of outbreaks that have severely strained relations with Russia.

The Georgian servicemen were reported killed early Monday in clashes near separatist South Ossetia's border with the rest of Georgia.

A Georgian military spokesman says the men died after "irregular forces" fired mortars and automatic weapons inside the pro-Russian region.

South Ossetian officials, in turn, accused the Georgians of shooting first, against several villages and the region's capital city, Tskhinvali.

The renewed violence has all but shattered a fragile cease-fire agreed to on Saturday by the two sides along with Russia, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia is a key player in the region, as it has backed South Ossetia since it broke away from Georgia more than a decade ago after a brief but bloody rebellion.

A peacekeeping force including Georgian and Russian troops has patrolled the area since then, and until recently managed to maintain an uneasy but quiet calm.

The province is inhabited mostly by Ossetians, who say they want either full independence or to reunite with their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia, just across the border in Russia.

South Ossetians have Russian citizenship, use the Russian ruble and have vowed never to come under Georgian control again.

But new Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is equally firm in his stated determination to reassert control over the rebel region, as well as the much larger breakaway province of Abkhazia, on the Black Sea.

Mr. Saakashvili came to power last November by leading street protests against longtime leader Eduard Shevardnadze, and earlier this year he managed to oust another regional leader who had also threatened to break away from Georgia.

The Georgian president now says he wants to regain control over South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia peacefully. (Signed)

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