Fighting in the border region between the former Soviet republic of Georgia and a breakaway Georgian enclave has reached its highest level in years, with Georgia saying that up to 10 civilians and soldiers had been killed in violence that erupted overnight on Wednesday and lasted throughout the day on Thursday.
The deaths were part of an intense, new round of fighting that has continued sporadically since last Saturday, when six people in South Ossetia, the breakaway enclave, died and more than 20 were wounded on both sides.
South Ossetia has reported evacuating women, children and the elderly from the conflict zone, sending them north into Russia, while news agencies reported heavy fire around the enclave’s capital, Tskhinvali, early Friday morning.
The recent violence has been the worst to hit the region since June 2004, shortly after President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia came to power vowing to reassert the country’s control over South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia.
The two separatist republics are internationally unrecognized but gained de facto independence from Georgia after a series of bloody wars in the 1990s during which thousands died. The republics then settled into a period of tenuous peace monitored by a contingent of Russian peacekeeping troops.
Upon taking power, Saakashvili challenged Russian preeminence in the region by seeking NATO membership and deeper ties with the West. His government has accused Russia of training and supplying separatist forces in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia under the auspices of its peacekeeping mission — accusations that Moscow denies.
Tensions further escalated earlier this year when Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February and was subsequently recognized by several Western countries. Russia, an ally of Serbia, had vehemently opposed the move and vowed to increase its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia — a poor, mountainous territory between Georgia and Russia’s southern border — in retaliation.
Georgia and South Ossetia blame one another for starting the current violence, and it is still unclear whether the fighting could intensify into full-scale war or simply peter out as have past skirmishes in this long-running conflict.
“It does give off the appearance that the violence is linked to strategic moves by one or both sides to improve their positions,” said Ana Jelenkovic, an associate at the Eurasia Group.
In the violence this week, separatist fighters from South Ossetia, the breakaway enclave, used rocket-propelled grenades to blow up a Georgian armored personnel carrier, killing two soldiers and injuring six others, Shota Utiashvili, a Georgian interior ministry spokesman said. Up to eight Georgian civilians were killed in a separate mortar attack on Thursday on the village of Avnevi in the border region, he said.