Georgians, separatists exchange fire in South Ossetia

Georgia and its breakaway province of South Ossetia exchanged fire on Friday, and both accused the other of targeting civilian areas including the residential quarters of the regional capital Tskhinvali. Tension in the small region on the Russian border has grown recently since Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili made restoring central authority over all Georgia a priority.

But the South Ossetia region is resisting efforts to end its 12-year-old self-proclaimed independence. South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity told Russia's Interfax news agency that Georgian troops shelled Tskhinvali and several pro-separatist villages populated by ethnic Ossetians with guns and mortars for two hours. He said that after the shelling, which went on into early Friday, Georgian forces tried to enter Tskinvali, but were stopped by local militia.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted a top South Ossetian official as saying two people were wounded in Tskhinvali. Georgian officials denied they had targeted civilians and Chief of Staff of the Georgian army Givi Iokuridze told Reuters in Tbilisi that South Ossetians were the first to open fire on pro-Tbilisi villages populated by ethnic Georgians.

"Ossetians twice shelled the villages of Kehvi and Tamarasheni," he said. Kokoity told Interfax the shelling of Tskhinvaly was the beginning of a major Georgian onslaught. "The massive attack on Tskhinvali is a beginning of a well-planned aggression by Georgia," Kokoity said.

But Iokuridze played down the incident, saying the shooting had ended. "If there was anything serious I would have been in the conflict zone, not in Tbilisi," he said.

Saakashvili, who ousted his predecessor in a bloodless coup last year, won presidential polls in January on a promise to restore Georgia's territorial integrity and make the impoverished Caucasus state a prosperous democracy. Saakashvili also accuses South Ossetian leaders of turning their region into a safe haven for smugglers.

Political analysts say that in contrast with Adzhara, a region populated by ethnic Georgians which never claimed full independence, South Ossetia and another breakaway province of Abkhazia are likely to be tougher tasks for Saakashvili. Saakashvili has accused Russian peacekeepers, who have helped maintain peace in South Ossetia since 1992, of siding with the separatists. The peacekeepers deny the accusations.