Russian troops in the breakaway province of South Ossetia have been put on increased combat readiness amid rising tensions on the de facto border with Georgia, officials said Tuesday.
Andrei Nesterenko, the spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said the move was taken in response to Georgian “provocations” and to prevent a further escalation of violence. “The most important thing now is to prevent escalation and not to allow skirmishes to grow into bigger clashes,” Nesternko said.
The situation near South Ossetia has become increasingly tense as the first anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war approaches on Friday, with Georgia and Russia blaming each other for provocations and intentions to resume fighting. The war began when Georgia launched an offensive to regain control over Moscow-backed South Ossetia.
South Ossetia’s separatists and Georgian authorities have accused each other of firing gunshots and mortar rounds on several occasions over the past few days.
In the latest incident Monday night, South Ossetia’s separatist authorities said three mortar rounds were fired into South Ossetia from Georgian-controlled territory. Georgian authorities denied the claim and accused separatists of firing rocket-propelled grenades at a Georgian checkpoint near South Ossetia. No one was hurt.
The European Union said it was concerned about mutual accusations of shelling and other incidents, but added that EU monitors in Georgia had seen no evidence confirming them so far. “The EU urges all sides to refrain from any statement or action that may lead to increased tensions at this particularly sensitive time,” the bloc said in a statement late Monday.
The EU monitors are the only remaining international ones in Georgia, but they are blocked from traveling inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
A EU-brokered truce ended the five-day August war between Georgia and Russia. Moscow sent in thousands of troops and tanks that routed the Georgian military and drove deep into Georgia.
Georgian authorities claimed they had to launch the artillery barrage on Tskhinvali, the provincial capital, because Russian troops had moved into South Ossetia hours earlier. Moscow denied the claim and said it acted to protect its peacekeepers and civilians there.
After the war, Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region in Georgia, as independent nations and permanently deployed thousands of troops there.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said in an interview with France’s RTL radio broadcast Tuesday that there is a risk of a new conflict because Russia was putting constant pressure on Georgia. He said that Georgia would not engage in conflict with Russia but would defend itself if necessary.