The capital of Georgia’s separatist region of South Ossetia came under heavy fire early today, just hours after Georgia’s president declared a unilateral ceasefire.
South Ossetia’s leader accused Georgia for treachery, but Georgia was responding to rebel attacks, news reports said.
The new violence sharply raised fears of an all-out war that could engulf much of the Caucasus region and perhaps draw in Russia.
“The assault is coming from all directions” said a brief statement on the separatist government’s website.
A separate statement quoted South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity as saying that his forces were in combat with Georgian troops on the outskirts of the city, Tskhinvali.
“There is a bitter fight going on and the significant damage is inflicted on the enemy,” he said.
Interfax news agency, reporting from Tskhinvali, cited Vladimir Ivanov, an official of the peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, as saying the fire included salvos by truck-launched Grad missiles.
Interfax quoted the president of North Ossetia, a Russian republic that borders South Ossetia, as saying that hundreds of volunteers were heading out to join the fight “and we can’t stop them”.
As many as 1,000 volunteers from Abkhazia, another Georgian separatist region, also would go to South Ossetia, the agency quoted Abkhazian president Sergei Bagapsh as saying.
Last night, Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili announced a unilateral ceasefire in a television broadcast in which he also urged South Ossetian separatist leaders to enter talks on resolving the conflict.
South Ossetia had also agreed to hold fire until a meeting today between the region’s deputy prime minister and Georgia’s top envoy for separatist issues, Russian news agencies reported, citing the head of the peacekeeping force in the region, Marat Kulakhmetov.
However, in response to the ceasefire call, “the separatists late Thursday evening began intensive firing on Georgian villages” near Tskhinvali, the Georgian government said in a statement reported by Interfax and ITAR-Tass.
“In these conditions, in order to guarantee the security of the Tskhinvali region’s population ... Georgia was forced to take adequate measures.”
Mr Kokoity blamed Georgia and called Mr Saakashvili’s ceasefire call a “despicable and treacherous” ruse, Interfax reported.
The Russian foreign ministry joined in with similar criticism, saying “the actions by Georgia in South Ossetia bear witness to the fact that the leadership of that country can no longer be trusted”, the agency said.
Mr Saakashvili also proposed that Russia could become a guarantor of wide-ranging autonomy for South Ossetia, if the region remained under Georgian control. Georgian officials claim Moscow has provoked the recent clashes.
Heavy shelling overnight on Wednesday in South Ossetia killed at least one person and wounded 22, officials said. It was some of the most severe fighting reported since August 1, when six people were reported killed around Tskhinvali.
The proposal for Russia to be a guarantor of wide South Ossetian autonomy could be aimed both at reducing South Ossetian unease at remaining part at Georgia and at allowing Russia to take a higher profile as a peacemaker.
Russia has soldiers in South Ossetia as peacekeeping forces, but Georgia claims they back the separatists. Russia was also criticised by the West as provoking tensions by sending warplanes in a sortie over South Ossetia last month.
Most of South Ossetia, which is roughly 1.5 times the size of Luxembourg, has been under the control of an internationally unrecognised separatist government since a war there ended in 1992. Georgian forces hold several swathes of it.
Russia also has close ties with the separatist regime in Abkhazia. An open war in either region could prompt Russia to send in more forces under the claim of protecting its citizens.
Relations between Georgia and Russia worsened notably this year as Georgia pushed to join Nato and Russia dispatched additional peacekeeper forces to Abkhazia.