Trying to prevent developments from spiraling out of control, Georgia has declared a cease-fire following an outburst of heavy fighting with separatist forces in the breakaway region of South Ossetia on August 7. Georgia is blaming Russia for the escalation of violence.
In a televised national speech, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili asserted that Russian peacekeepers had admitted that they had "totally lost control" over South Ossetian forces. Moscow has not yet responded to the claim.
"The Russian peacekeeping forces told us several hours ago that they have totally lost control over the separatist forces," Saakashvili told viewers, according to an English-language transcript posted on Civil.ge. "We are in permanent contact with the Russian Foreign Ministry, but it fails to convince the separatist[s] to cease fire."
In a bid to resume talks with South Ossetia's separatist authorities, Saakashvili stated that he had ordered a cease-fire despite "intensive fire" from artillery, tanks, self-propelled artillery systems, mortars and grenade launchers. The weaponry claims could not be independently verified.
The Georgian Interior Ministry claimed on August 7 that Ossetian separatists had started shelling two Georgian-controlled villages, Nuli and Avnevi, after an earlier barrage this past weekend. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Three soldiers were also injured when an Ossetian grenade destroyed an armored personnel carrier in Avnevi, the ministry said. Georgia's largest mobile phone carrier, Magti, stated that attacks disrupted service in the area, the Russian news service Interfax reported.
Television reports that Georgians have begun to evacuate villages near the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, could not be independently verified.
Earlier on August 7, South Ossetia's separatist government claimed that Georgian forces had begun a massive onslaught on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, with a combination of grenades, mortars and artillery fire. A similar claim had earlier been made about an alleged onslaught from Avnevi against the Ossetian village of Khetagurovo.
The Tskhinvali government claims that at least two people were killed and at least 18 injured in what it says was heavy Georgian shelling of several Ossetian villages during the night of August 6-August 7.
The Ossetian government also claims that Georgian armored equipment, artillery and troops have started moving into the conflict zone from Gori. Russian television news has cited a similar movement from a city further west, Kutaisi. Georgian Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili denied the report, which could not be independently verified.
In earlier comments to reporters, Deputy Interior Minister Ekaterine Zguladze asserted that Georgian police posts in South Ossetia are banned from using heavy artillery "even when [they] are defending themselves."
Separatist South Ossetian officials could not be reached for comment.
As the two sides stand primed for further attacks -- whether alleged or actual -- attention in Tbilisi has begun to focus on Russia. In a televised visit August 7 to a hospital where two injured Georgian servicemen were being treated, President Saakashvili called for calm, stating that "a deepening of the confrontation is not in either Russia's or Georgia's interests."
In a later official statement, however, the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took a harsher position, asserting that "all responsibility for the recent development of events falls on the Russian Federation."
The ministry blamed Moscow for allegedly failing to control the transfer of "mercenaries, military hardware and armaments used" in the reported attacks, and for the alleged presence of "Russian-delegated" security personnel within the separatist Ossetian government.
Within the Georgian-controlled sections of the conflict zone, the actions of Russian peacekeepers appear to be stoking hostility among the local population toward Moscow. Villagers say the peacekeepers do not intervene to stop Ossetian forces from firing on Georgian villages.
On an August 5 government-organized tour of Georgian-controlled villages damaged in recent attacks, Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko found himself in the hot seat, alternatively comforting distraught villagers and exchanging barbs with Georgian troops over Russia's actions.
"You're taking a big sin on yourself. A big sin. And you'll answer before God," he told one sun-glassed Georgian special forces soldier who claimed that a nearby Russian peacekeeping position had fired on the village of Nuli (Zero in Georgian). "Don't make the Georgian and Russian people argue with each other."
In remarks to reporters, Kovalenko asserted that Georgia's signature of a non-use-of-force agreement with South Ossetia is the only way out of the current standoff.
"This agreement would be an obligatory agreement and the country that violates the agreement will be subject to international correction," he elaborated to EurasiaNet. "Without that agreement, there's no calm in the region. People are afraid. People are worried.
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi.