Hundreds flee South Ossetia clashes

Hundreds of women and children are fleeing the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia and making for neighbouring Russia, amid fears that a full-scale war could be on the immediate agenda.


Georgia's Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia is close to "large-scale" military conflict, Russia warned on Sunday after weekend violence.

Following the outbreak of violence late Friday, which the rebels said had left six people dead, Moscow accused Georgia's pro-Western leadership of undermining peace efforts with new military manoeuvres.

Georgia, which in the past has accused Moscow of stirring unrest, categorically denied it was conducting such manoeuvres.

"The threat of large-scale military action between Georgia and South Ossetia is becoming ever more real," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement.

"Despite various declarations by the Georgian leadership on the need for urgent measures to reduce tension, in practice Tbilisi's actions undermine these declarations," the statement said, urging restraint on both sides.

On Saturday the South Ossetian rebel administration said three South Ossetian soldiers and three civilians had been killed by Georgian forces the night before.

Tbilisi insisted it had opened fire only in response to firing from South Ossetian grenade launchers and denied rebel claims that Georgia had deployed snipers to attack rebel positions.

Georgia accuses Moscow of propping up the rebel leadership in South Ossetia and another separatist territory, Abkhazia, mainly through large Russian peacekeeping contingents in both areas.

Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is embroiled in a row with Soviet-era master Moscow over his plans to join the Western military alliance NATO, which Russia vehemently opposes.

Russia's statement echoed claims by South Ossetia that Georgia had started moving artillery and other heavy weapons closer to South Ossetia late Saturday.

On its website the South Ossetian information agency said Georgia's military had opened fire on several South Ossetian villages early Sunday, though without a repeat of the injuries of the night before.

However Georgia has argued that Russia has an interest in stirring up trouble in order to hinder Tbilisi's NATO bid, and on Sunday Georgia's defence ministry rejected the claims of a military build-up.

"It's not true that Georgia is concentrating troops and armaments in the South Ossetian conflict zone," Georgia's defence ministry spokeswoman Nana Intskirveli said in broadcast comments.

The Russian statement rejected Georgia's diplomatic drive for the removal of Russian peacekeepers, saying current instability made any such move "especially counterproductive and dangerous."

Meanwhile, the South Ossetian authorities said they were evacuating women and children from vulnerable areas, transporting them across the border to the neighbouring Russian province of North Ossetia.

South Ossetian education minister Zamira Dzhioyeva said a first group of 1,000 children had been sent to North Ossetia on Sunday.

"This step has been brought about by the fact that our children are in constant danger, which has a negative effect on their unformed psyches and simply threatens their lives," she was quoted by the information agency as saying.

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