Russia warns of force if more Georgia provocations

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia on Saturday warned Georgia its military reserves the right to use force if the ex-Soviet state continues provocations in the Caucasus, one week ahead of the first anniversary of their 2008 war. Tbilisi responded by accusing Moscow of having made an undisguised threat and of having dangerous designs on Georgia. The Russian defence ministry accused Georgia of firing several times with mortars and grenades over the last four days on the capital of its rebel South Ossetia region, which is recognised as independent by Russia. Such actions seriously worry the Russian defence ministry, the ministry said in a statement on its website. If such provocations posing a threat to the population of South Ossetia and the Russian military continue, the defence ministry reserves the right to use all the forces and means at its disposal. The angry statement came just ahead of the August 7 anniversary of the start of the war, when a Georgian military attempt to retake South Ossetia was rebuffed by Russia. Moscow then sent troops and tanks deep into Georgian territory. Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili, speaking to AFP in Tbilisi, denied any shooting from Georgia had taken place. Georgias foreign ministry called the Russian statement an undisguised threat and warned Moscow was escalating tensions. The ministry of foreign affairs of Georgia expresses deep concern and condemns in the most categorical terms the Russian sides militarist statements, which aim at further destabilising the situation and causing the unfolding of a dangerous scenario of events, the ministry said in a statement. The military rhetoric unleashed recently... shed ample light on Russias dangerous designs against Georgia, it said. The Russian defence ministry described the alleged Georgian actions as an attempt by the Georgian leadership to inflame the situation in the region. Ominously, it noted that the events of August 2008 took place according to an analogous scenario. A spokesman for the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia, Steve Bird, said monitors had investigated the reports of violations early Saturday but found no evidence of shooting. The EUMM the sole international presence in Georgias conflict zones after the withdrawal of United Nations and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer missions has called on all sides to show restraint as the anniversary of the war approaches. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned in a report last month that the withdrawal of OSCE and UN monitors was creating a potentially explosive situation in which even a small incident could spark new fighting. Russia and Georgia have repeatedly accused each other of ceasefire violations over the past months but this is the first time Moscow has issued a statement explicitly warning of the use of force. Russian defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said the statement may be aimed at creating a pretext for Russian military action. Russia is preparing the ground for a new war against Georgia with the goal of overturning the regime of pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili, he said. After the war, Russian forces mostly withdrew into South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, but Tbilisi is furious at the continued presence of thousands of Russian troops in both rebel regions. As well as creating a rupture between Russia and pro-Western Georgia that shows no sign of healing, the war also sent relations between Moscow and Washington to their worst level since the Cold War. US Vice President Joe Biden visited Georgia last week, backing its territorial integrity and the countrys aspirations to join NATO, an idea that has particularly irked Russia.

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