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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 August, 2004, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
South Ossetia: Thorn in Georgia's side
By Virginia Gidley-Kitchin
BBC News

South Ossetia has been a de-facto independent region of Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But earlier this year the newly elected Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, pledged to bring it back under central control.

South Ossetian children wave Russian and South Ossetian flags
Many South Ossetians look to Russia, not Georgia
Since then, tensions and clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces have escalated, and now there are fears the situation might descend into all-out war.

There are also fears that this could also jeopardise a strategic oil pipeline that crosses the region.

South Ossetians strongly oppose Mr Saakashvili's vision for their reintegration into Georgia proper.

"We want to live with Russia - we don't want to live with Georgia any more," said a woman in a market in South Ossetia's main city Tskhinvali.

"This is the third time they've launched a genocide against us. We don't even buy food in the market from Georgians any more."

Another woman recalls how the first war the Georgians fought in the region was "terrifying".

"It was the Russian soldiers that defended us then and brought peace back," she said. "We've been living as Russians ever since. We hope they'll come and defend us again."

Ceasefire broken

South Ossetia is inhabited mostly by ethnic Ossetians, who speak a language slightly related to Persian, while Georgians are in a minority.

Officially at least, the region is part of Georgia, but it borders North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.

It's very difficult for a democratic country, a fragile and new democratic country, that is developing its economy, to have on its border corrupted regions that are lawless
Salome Zourabichvili,
Georgian Foreign Minister
A decade ago, with some Russian support, the South Ossetians effectively broke away from Georgia. Peace was restored by a 1992 agreement on the deployment there of Georgian, Ossetian and Russian peacekeepers.

But in recent weeks, violence has erupted again. Overnight shelling and gunfire has already breached a ceasefire accord reached last week, and both sides now fear all-out war.

The Georgian Foreign Minister, Salome Zourabichvili, who is currently at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, has called for more international involvement to resolve the conflict.

"We have been calling repeatedly for dialogue with the separatists," she said. "We have asked repeatedly. The prime minister has asked for direct talks but has not yet had an answer.

South Ossetia leader Eduard Kokoity
South Ossetia leader Eduard Kokoity wants independence
"We have been asking for high-level political dialogue with the Russians on this question and we've been asking for increased monitoring by the OSCE, which is indispensable if we want to get demilitarisation with a very high degree of autonomy, federal structures."

Russia, sensitive about the growing US influence in Georgia since Mr Saakashvili's election in January, has rejected increased international involvement in the conflict.

But why is Mr Saakashvili so insistent on getting South Ossetia back under Georgian control anyway?

Ms Zourabichvili says it is not a case of bringing it "back under control", but more a desire to reunite the country.

"It's very difficult for a democratic country, a fragile and new democratic country, that is developing its economy, to have on its border corrupted regions that are lawless and escape all types of control and where all types of trafficking are happening," she said.

Pipeline fears

The minister said the Georgian government had made many gestures to show the South Ossetians that it did not want to restrict their rights or limit their autonomy.

Population: About 70,000
Capital: Tskhinvali
Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
Major religion: Orthodox Christianity
Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari

But it is independence, not autonomy, that the South Ossetians want, according to the BBC's Sarah Rainsford, who has spent two days in the breakaway region.

She says people there think that events are starting to come to a climax.

"It's interesting that passions are very high in Tbilisi in Georgia, on the Georgian side," she said.

"But here in South Ossetia, people are equally adamant that they know exactly what they want, and they are prepared to fight for it. They say that South Ossetia wants to belong to Russia, it wants full independence. They call Georgia aggressors."

The tension is causing growing concern to the US, which is training Georgian troops and helping to build a strategic oil pipeline across the country.

The pipeline, due to open next year, is intended to carry up to one million barrels of oil a day to western markets from Azerbaijan via Georgia to a Turkish port in the Mediterranean.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Russia to ease tensions with Georgia over South Ossetia. A State Department spokesman said clashes would threaten the pipeline's future.

Heavy shelling batters S Ossetia
17 Aug 04  |  Europe
Georgia wants Russian troops out
13 Aug 04  |  Europe
Georgia reports deaths in clash
12 Aug 04  |  Europe
Regions and territories: South Ossetia
13 Jun 04  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Georgia
14 Jul 04  |  Country profiles

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