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South Ossetia Tensions Escalate

Detention of alleged bombers again pits South Ossetia against Tbilisi.
By Alan Parastayev

The detention of three men from South Ossetia by the Georgian authorities and a fresh round of mutual recriminations has heightened tensions once again between the breakaway region and Tbilisi.

This week, Georgia has been holding military exercises in the town of Kutaisi, and the authorities in Tskhinval (or Tskhinvali as it is known in Georgia) have been watching for any build-up of Georgian forces that might lead to a military intervention in South Ossetia.

Last month Georgian interior minister Vano Merabishvili accused the South Ossetian authorities of being behind a car bombing in the town of Gori in which three people died.

He made the sensational allegation that a Russian military intelligence officer based in South Ossetia had plotted the attack, and that two Ossetians accused of carrying out the attack, Gia Valiev and Gia Zasiev, had been arrested in a special operation. The man who bought the vehicle used in the attack was also said to be in custody.

Merabishvili alleged that the Russian officer had formed a special underground group a year and a half ago, and it had been trained within Russia. He said the group had carried a number of attacks in addition to the Gori bombing.

The authorities in South Ossetia – which has been de facto independent of Georgia since a war that ended in 1991 – strongly denied the allegations, which they said were merely a pretext to implicate the unrecognised republic in “terrorism” and move towards a military campaign.

“These accusations are of course without foundation and have nothing to do with a real enquiry,” said South Ossetia’s chief negotiator Boris Chochiev. “We advise the Georgian side to look for terrorists not in South Ossetia, but within Georgia itself.”

“All the signs that we should expect violence or ‘aggressive peacemaking’ are in front of our eyes,” said Irina Gagloyeva, who heads the South Ossetian government’s information committee. Gagloyeva said that last year the Georgian government had failed to persuade the United States to endorse military action against South Ossetia, but that this year the speaker of parliament Nino Burjanadaze had winning Washington’s approval under the guise of a “war against terror”.

The South Ossetian authorities say that a man by the same name as the Russian officer named by Merabishvili did work with them until January this year, but has now left the territory.

Last summer, several dozen people died in an upsurge of violence in South Ossetia.

This year has been quieter, but several incidents in the last two months amount to a deterioration in the situation.

In late June, four Ossetian soldiers and one Georgian policeman were left dead after a firefight in the ethnic Georgian village of Tamarasheni-Kekhvi, inside South Ossetia. In Tskhinval, people believe this was a planned operation.

The Georgian media has accused the South Ossetians of being behind the disappearance of four villagers from Tamarasheni. But in South Ossetia, this incident is commonly believed to involve criminals settling scores with people who had run up heavy debts, rather than an act of revenge for the killing of the Ossetian soldiers.

Each of these incidents is being investigated by the Joint Control Commission, JCC, coordinated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, which is the main international mediator in the conflict.

But there is little belief in the effectiveness of the JCC. “The very fact that Valiev and Zasiev have been arrested and accused of terrorism is another step taken by those who are seeking to compromise the JCC and the peacekeepers,” said Leonid Tibilov, deputy chairman of the JCC on the South Ossetian side. “By someone who wants to take their place.”

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has given out mixed signals about his country’s unresolved territorial disputes, saying that he will pursue peaceful means to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under Tbilisi’s control - but also that he wants to achieve this by the end of his first term in office.

“We will not put up with preserving the conflicts in a frozen state and we can’t wait for the solution of these problems for a hundred years, so we will be very aggressive in searching for peace,” Saakashvili told a conference on the South Ossetian conflict in Batumi on July 10.

The conference took place without any participants from South Ossetia, and was condemned there as a public relations exercise.

The likelihood of war is the main topic of discussion in Tskhinval’s Theatre Square. “If they [Georgia] wanted war, they would have brought tanks up to the town,” said one man. “Saakashvili is talking about imposing order in a legal manner.”

He added, “Russia doesn’t want an escalation either. It would have reacted more aggressively to the detention of the ‘terrorists’.”

“But exercises in Kutaisi – that’s definitely a preparation for war in South Ossetia,” countered his neighbour on a bench.

“We don’t support terror, we are building a state,” said Dali, a young woman who had come from Moscow to start a business in Tskhinval. “We have Georgian enclaves right under our noses which bring us problems – they shoot our boys, they closed the road to North Ossetia. But we don’t blow them up. Yet they accuse us of an act of terrorism in Gori.”

“No one in recent history has suffered more from terrorism than Ossetians,” said Sergei Tedeyev, a member of the Youth Human Rights Movement. “There was the shooting in Zars, the attack by Chechen terrorists on a police building in 2000 and then Beslan. We have never responded to terror with terror.”

“With every new incident the republic loses more and more,” said Timur Tskhovrebov, leader of the Union of Ex-Combatants of South Ossetia. “The murderers have not been caught, the disappeared have not been found, accusations of terrorism are made. People feel undefended. Emotions could spill over and then it won’t be possible to contain them.”

Georgian conflict specialist Paata Zakareishvili said that there was no evidence that the arrested men had anything to do with the South Ossetian authorities and that the “hand of Moscow” was more likely to be involved.

Zakareishvili said there was no reason to believe there was support for terrorism in South Ossetia, “A significant part of this population does not exactly trust Georgia but does hope that Georgia will change its attitude towards them. There isn’t a strong ambition for independence, and they feel that it is impossible.”

Alan Parastayev is director of the South Ossetian Centre for Civic Initiatives. Zurab Bendeniashvili is director of Prime News agency in Tbilisi.