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New battle in Georgian rebel region; fears of war

Georgia and South Ossetian separatists reported a heavy battle involving artillery on Thursday in the breakaway region, following nearly a week of clashes that have deepened fears of a new war in the Caucasus.

The Georgian Interior Ministry said that separatists were trying to attack the Tbilisi-controlled village of Avnevi in South Ossetia and had destroyed a Georgian armoured personnel carrier (APC). Three soldiers were wounded.

”They [separatists] are trying to attack Avnevi. The fighting is ongoing,” Georgian Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili told Reuters.

Official separatist website said Georgians were shelling the village of Khetagurovo from Avnevi. ”Guns from APCs, mortars and machine-guns are being used,” the site said.

A Reuters correspondent several kilometres from Avnevi reported hearing loud explosions and shooting.

Almost a week of clashes have deepened fears of full-blown war in the volatile Caucasus, where the West and Russia are vying for influence over vital energy transit routes.

Separatists said 18 people were wounded overnight in what they described as heavy overnight artillery bombardment of the breakaway capital Tskhinvali and separatist-controlled villages.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Thursday rejected Russian accusations that Tbilisi was readying for war.

”Confrontation is not in Georgia’s interests and I hope and I’m sure that the continuation of confrontation is not in Russia’s interests either,” he told reporters in Gori, where he visited two wounded Georgian peacekeepers.

Military convoy
But near the town of Gori, at the very southern entrance to South Ossetia, a Reuters reporter saw 30 buses and seven military trucks filled with Georgian soldiers and waiting in convoy at a checkpoint.

The soldiers refused to say where they were heading.

South Ossetia and the Black Sea region of Abkhazia broke away from Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s. They enjoy the financial and political backing of Russia, which has also given citizenship to the vast majority of locals.

But years of relative calm since the wars has broken down in recent months, with deadly bomb blasts in Abkhazia and skirmishes in Ossetia.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a senior South Ossetian official as saying the mechanised battalion of the Georgian army’s Fifth brigade was being loaded onto trailers and despatched to the conflict zone.

”When these detachments arrive, the Georgian side plans to launch large-scale military actions,” said Anatoly Barankevich, secretary of the separatist Security Council.

Pro-Western Saakashvili, who took power in 2003, has promised Georgians he will restore control over the entire country, and has angered Russia by pledging to steer the ex-Soviet state towards membership of Nato.

The United States has called for calm. But Russia, which has peacekeepers in both rebel regions, has said it would not remain indifferent if the violence on its border escalated.

”Concern was expressed that the action of the Georgian side around Tskhinvali can be regarded as war preparations,” the foreign ministry said on its web site after a telephone conversation between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and South Ossetia’s leader, Eduard Kokoity. – Reuters

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