|Georgia warns Russia not to intervene in South Ossetia
TBILISI : Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili warned Russia not to support separatists in South Ossetia and said he was holding top-level talks with Moscow and Washington to prevent escalating violence in the breakaway Georgian region erupting into armed conflict.
The tiny mountainous province on Georgia's border with Russia has seen a string of clashes this week that have increased tensions between Tbilisi, South Ossetia's self-proclaimed government and Russian peacekeepers, who many Georgians suspect of siding with the separatists.
"There is a real danger of large-scale conflict being sparked by a foreign nation," Saakashvili told the national military academy. He warned Russia not to become involved in armed conflict over South Ossetia with Georgia, a former Soviet republic which is openly seeking closer ties with Washington.
"I am counting on the good sense of President (Vladimir) Putin and Russia's political and military elite. But if imperialist instincts get the upper hand ... they will find a united population facing them," he said.
Although Georgia has pledged not to use violence, the 36-year-old Saakashvili has vowed to bring South Ossetia back under central government control, a move resisted by the separatist leadership there and watched warily by Russia.
"There is no alternative to peace," he said. "This is the logic of history -- south Ossetia will be an integral part of Georgia and we will live in peace with our Ossetian brothers."
Violence flared this week in the breakaway region, which fought a bitter three-year battle for independence from Tbilisi with Russian support after the breakup of the Soviet Union and is now effectively a Russian protectorate.
On Thursday separatists briefly took about 40 Georgian soldiers hostage, saying the detained men were troublemakers masquerading as members of the joint Russian, Georgian and Ossetian peacekeeping force. A day earlier Georgian troops impounded two Russian trucks carrying military equipment.
Fierce fighting has been raging since Friday around a Georgian-inhabited village in south Ossetia and both Tbilisi and Moscow have vowed to increase troop numbers in the region.
Saakashvili, who cut short a visit to Iran this week because of the rising violence in South Ossetia, told a news conference on Saturday he had held crisis talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.
"Putin's special representative Lev Mironov arrives in Georgia today. And the secretary of our security council, Guela Bejuashvili, is leaving today for consultations in Moscow," he added.
"We are doing everything possible to prevent the conflict worsening."
Moscow, which is seeking to prevent its role as regional power broker slipping away to the US, called this week for calm.
Russia's foreign ministry on Saturday said it wanted a meeting in Moscow of the Joint Control Commission (JCC), which monitors the disputed region.
The JCC, set up after the Russia and Georgia negotiated a ceasefire for South Ossetia in 1992, comprises representatives from Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE).
But the Russian ministry also accused Tbilisi of stationing in South Ossetia "up to 3,000 security officers ... who have nothing to do with the peacekeeping operation".
Last month South Ossetia's separatist leader, Eduard Kokoity, appealed to Russia to recognize his republic as independent.