TBILISI, Georgia (AP) – Georgian soldiers clashed with gunmen in the separatist region of South Ossetia on Thursday, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said. Two Georgian soldiers were wounded.

South Ossetian government spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva dismissed the claim as “sheer misinformation,” the Interfax news agency said.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to restore Georgian control over South Ossetia, which has been de-facto independent since separatist fighting ended in 1992, and tensions have risen sharply in the region in recent weeks.

Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian forces all conduct peacekeeping operations in the region, which borders the Russian republic of North Ossetia.

Zhvania said the attack took place at a Georgian peacekeepers’ position between the villages Tamarasheni and Kurti. He did not provide other details, but said Georgia is taking measures “in order not to allow an armed conflict.”

The reported clash came hours after South Ossetian forces detained and disarmed another contingent of Georgian peacekeepers.

On Tuesday, Georgian police stopped a column of 10 trucks carrying Russian servicemen, missiles and other military equipment into South Ossetia from Russia, and sent two of the trucks containing 160 unguided missiles to the Georgian capital, sparking strong criticism from Moscow.

In the disarming incident, Georgia’s minister for conflict settlement Georgy Khaindrava told Rustavi-2 television that South Ossetian forces moved into the village, Vanati, around sunrise and began a house-to-house search for weapons. They also detained a group of Georgian peacekeepers located in the village and sent them on to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, he said.

Calling the detained peacekeepers “captives” of the South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity’s regime, Khaindrava warned that Georgia has “the strength to make an appropriate response.” He noted that Georgia has 500 well-armed peacekeepers in the region.

“But it is worth asking, how much force from our side should be used to answer the activity of Kokoity,” Khaindrava said. “We think that it would be intolerable if this were to become the beginning of military action.”

Saakashvili has promised to use peaceful means in regaining control over South Ossetia, but his aims have angered South Ossetian authorities and raised concern in Russia, which has close ties with South Ossetia.

Earlier, Georgia’s Security Council secretary Gela Bezhuashvili said he had also been in contact with is Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, about the situation.

Georgia has long expressed misgivings about the presence of Russian peacekeepers, whom it accuses of siding with the South Ossetians.

AP-ES-07-08-04 1235EDT



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