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Georgia, South Ossetia agree to hold talks

Latest update : 2008-08-05

Georgian authorities have agreed to hold landmark direct talks with South Ossetia's rebel government for the first time in a decade on Thursday, as tensions in the rebel region threaten to boil over.

Georgian and South Ossetian officials have agreed to hold direct talks for the first time in a decade this week amid mounting tensions in the rebel region, a Georgian official said Tuesday.

South Ossetia's rebel government denied agreeing to the talks in a statement of its website, but a senior Russian official confirmed the discussions were to take place on Thursday.

Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili told AFP he would meet on August 7 with senior South Ossetian officials in the rebel capital Tskhinvali.

He said the landmark talks, the first direct bilateral contact between the two sides for at least a decade, "could mark a breakthrough in resolving the conflict."

Russia's negotiator on South Ossetia, ambassador-at-large Yury Popov, also told the ITAR-TASS news agency that the talks would take place, adding that Russia would take part.

"We hope the sides will manage to find compromise decisions that will promote the removal of tensions in the region," he was quoted as saying.

Georgia's foreign ministry also said Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze would meet Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin in Moscow later this week to discuss the situation in South Ossetia.

The reports came after a top Russian diplomat warned Moscow would defend Russian citizens living in South Ossetia and a South Ossetian official said militias in the region were preparing for war, Russian media reports said.

South Ossetia has evacuated hundreds of women and children to Russia over the past few days after six people were killed on Friday by sniper and mortar fire from Georgian positions, the rebel province's government said.

Georgia has denied readying for war and said there is no major evacuation.

South Ossetia broke away from the rest of Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 in a conflict that killed thousands of people.

Russia has given the separatist province diplomatic and economic support, including granting citizenship to most of its residents.

"If events develop in the worst possible way, with the use of force, Russia will not be able to stand by, seeing as Russian citizens live in South Ossetia," Popov was quoted by media as saying.

Tensions between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, have soared in recent months since Moscow announced it was boosting ties with the separatists.

Meanwhile South Ossetian officials said militia volunteers from southern Russia were beginning to arrive in the separatist province in preparation for a possible conflict.

"The volunteers are arriving," Dmitry Medoyev, a spokesman for South Ossetia's leadership, told reporters in Moscow, Russian news agencies said.

"We are getting offers of help from the North Caucasus and from the Cossacks of southern Russia," he added.

Date created : 2008-08-05