- Georgia - Russia - South Ossetia
Seven Russian soldiers and two civilians were killed on Friday in an apparent car bomb attack near the Russian force headquarters in the volatile Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia, Russian and local officials said.
"Seven servicemen were killed, seven others were wounded," Major-General Marat Kulakhmetov told Interfax news agency in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali where Russian troops are based and where the attack occurred.
The wounded were evacuated by helicopter and taken to defence ministry hospitals in Russia, the report quoted him as saying.
Local officials in the rebel province said the Russian soldiers were killed after security forces seized from Georgian citizens a suspect automobile that turned out to be packed with explosives that blew up near their main base.
The leader of the rebel province, Eduard Kokoity, immediately blamed the attack on Georgia, an accusation Tbilisi promptly rejected.
"This was an attack planned by the Georgian Ministry of National Security," Kokoity told Russia's state-run ITAR-TASS news agency in Tskhinvali.
Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashivili denied any Georgian involvement.
"I think this is a provocation with the aim of keeping Russian forces in Georgia," Utiashvili told AFP in Tbilisi.
The apparent attack marked the most serious violence in the region since the brief war that broke out in South Ossetia in August between Russia and Georgia.
It also occurred just three days after more than 200 European observers deployed in various parts of Georgia at the start of a major mission to monitor a ceasefire and oversee a pull-back of Russian troops.
Thousands of Russian troops remain deployed in South Ossetia and another Georgian rebel province, Abkhazia, and are also in "buffer zone" positions outside those provinces in undisputed Georgian territory.
President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday reiterated that Russian forces would pull out of that undisputed territory no later than October 10, under the terms of an EU peace agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
A spokeswoman for South Ossetia's self-styled government, Irina Gagloyeva, was unable to provide more information on the identity of the Georgians or to explain why the car had been taken from them in the first place.
"We can assume that this was an attack," she said earlier, without elaborating.
South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia after defeating Georgian forces in a war in 1992 in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union the previous year.
The rebel province enjoyed de facto independence until August, when Georgian forces launched an attack in a bid to regain control of South Ossetia by force.
Russia responded by pouring forces into the province, officially in defence of the many residents who hold Russian citizenship, quickly routing Georgian troops and taking control of South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia.
Shortly afterwards, Russia formally recognized both rebel Georgian provinces as independent countries, a move fiercely opposed by Georgia and its allies in the West and so far followed by no other country except Nicaragua.