TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia said on Saturday it was evacuating children to Russia and accused Georgia of targeting civilians after six people died overnight in a shootout with Georgian forces.
Stoking fears of war in the volatile Caucasus, separatist president Eduard Kokoity said he was ready to mobilize his region’s men and take volunteers from the Russian republic of North Ossetia and other Caucasus republics to fight Georgia.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia after a bloody war in the early 1990s. Russia has sent in a peacekeeping force, which Moscow says is needed to avert a new war.
South Ossetia said on its website, cominf.org, that the death toll had risen overnight from three to six people and armed clashes continued through the night on the outskirts of the separatist capital, Tskhinvali.
It said shooting came from three ethnic Georgian villages, but Georgia blamed the separatists for provoking the clashes.
The commander of Georgia’s peacekeeping force in the region, Mamuka Kurashvili, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying South Ossetian peacekeepers shot at a Georgian village and suspected Russian peacekeepers of taking part.
Georgian peacekeepers and police officers returned fire and repelled the attack, he said.
Georgia’s Interior Ministry said nine civilians in the Georgian villages in South Ossetia were injured, while Tskhinvali said up to 15 were injured on its side, up from seven reported on Friday. Kokoity put the number of injured at 13.
“This is another attempt by the separatist side to involve Georgia in a military conflict,” Georgia’s state minister in charge of re-integration, Temur Iakobashvili, told reporters in Tbilisi before leaving to visit the shootout area.
“The Georgian side was forced to return fire,” he added.
Later, Iakobashvili said South Ossetian leaders refused to meet him for talks, and he called for more peacekeepers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
On the separatist website, Kokoity accused Georgia of deliberately targeting young South Ossetian men with sniper fire and aiming artillery fire at Tskhinvali residential areas.
Children were being evacuated in buses from the Tskhinvali area to children’s camps in the Russian border region of North Ossetia, the site said.
A spokesman for the Georgian Interior Ministry, Shota Utiashvili, denied use of snipers and weapons capable of hitting Tshinvali’s “peaceful quarters” in televised remarks.
Russia’s foreign ministry, in a separate statement, urged both sides to show restraint and said it was taking “energetic measures” to prevent an escalation of the armed conflict.
Russian news agencies quoted the a spokesman for the Russian defense ministry as saying Russian peacekeepers were not involved in the exchange of fire.
The commander of Russia’s paratroop force, celebrating Russia’s annual Paratroop Day, turned up the rhetoric, saying his men were ready for deployment to South Ossetia to back up the peacekeepers, Interfax reported.
“A decision to deploy extra forces is the purview of the Security Council and president, but in any case Russia will not allow harm to come to its citizens residing in South Ossetia,” the news agency quoted Valery Yevtukhovich as saying.
Georgia, which has irritated Russia by aspiring to join NATO, has accuses Moscow of seeking to annex South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia.
Russia has rejected the blame and accused Tbilisi, which views restoring control over the breakaway provinces as a top national priority, of artificially stoking the crisis to find a pretext for seizing the regions by force.