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Posted on Thu, Jul. 08, 2004

Two Georgian Soldiers Wounded in Clash

MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI

Associated Press


TBILISI, Georgia - Georgian soldiers clashed with gunmen in the separatist region of South Ossetia on Thursday, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said. Two Georgian soldiers were wounded.

The clash seriously raises tensions in the region, which Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to return to Georgian control.

South Ossetia has been de-facto independent since 1992, when a truce ended 18 months f separatist fighting. Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian forces are there as peacekeepers.

Zhvania said the attack took place at a Georgian peacekeepers' position between the villages Tamarasheni and Kurti. He did not provide other details, but said Georgia is taking measures "in order not to allow an armed conflict."

The clash came hours after South Ossetian forces detained and disarmed another contingent of Georgian peacekeepers.

On Tuesday, Georgian police stopped a column of 10 trucks carrying Russian servicemen, missiles and other military equipment into South Ossetia from Russia, and sent two of the trucks containing 160 unguided missiles to the Georgian capital, sparking strong criticism from Moscow.

In the disarming incident, Georgia's minister for conflict settlement Georgy Khaindrava told Rustavi-2 television that South Ossetian forces moved into the village, Vanati, around sunrise and began a house-to-house search for weapons. They also detained a group of Georgian peacekeepers located in the village and sent them on to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, he said.

Calling the detained peacekeepers "captives" of the South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity's regime, Khaindrava warned that Georgia has "the strength to make an appropriate response." He noted that Georgia has 500 well-armed peacekeepers in the region.

"But it is worth asking, how much force from our side should be used to answer the activity of Kokoity," Khaindrava said. "We think that it would be intolerable if this were to become the beginning of military action."

Saakashvili has promised to use peaceful means in regaining control over South Ossetia, but his aims have angered South Ossetian authorities and raised concern in Russia, which has close ties with South Ossetia.

Earlier, Georgia's Security Council secretary Gela Bezhuashvili said he had also been in contact with is Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, about the situation.

Georgia has long expressed misgivings about the presence of Russian peacekeepers, whom it accuses of siding with the South Ossetians.

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