Tense stand-off in disputed Georgia village

TSKHINVALI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgian and South Ossetian forces were in a tense stand-off on Monday over control of a disputed village on the edge of the breakaway region, according to Georgian and separatist officials.

A guard patrols the street during a visit by Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg in the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali August 24, 2008. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Georgian and Russian troops fought a brief war in the region earlier this month and are now observing a fragile ceasefire.

Georgian officials said the village of Mosabruni was not part of separatist-controlled territory and alleged the separatists were planning a provocation against Georgian special forces who had been deployed there.

The separatist administration said the village was within South Ossetia and the Georgian forces were there unlawfully. It accused Tbilisi of massing armed men in preparation for an attack.

“According to our information, South Ossetian militias want to take this village. Our forces got the order not to shoot, but if Ossetians start shooting they will have to return fire,” Kakha Lomaia, Secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, told Reuters.

Lomaia said the atmosphere in the majority Georgian-populated village was “very tense”. He declined to say exactly when Georgian forces had returned there.

Although the village lies just inside the region of South Ossetia, it has been under Georgian control for over a decade and is considered by Georgia as part of its territory.

“We believe that the Ossetians are preparing a provocation there,” Lomaia said.

A separatist official said the village, 70 km west of the regional capital Tskhinvali, lies inside South Ossetia, and the separatists were consulting Russian forces on their next move.

“About three hours ago, Georgian policemen occupied the village of Mosabruni. They told locals to leave straight away. Villagers are leaving on foot,” Irina Gagloyeva, head of the separatists’ Committee for Press and Information, told Reuters.

“South Ossetian security bodies are now holding consultations with Russian peacekeepers and I hope very much they will not allow a new flare-up.”

In a second South Ossetian village, Mugut, separatist forces detained a group of Georgian policemen, the Interfax news agency quoted separatist officials as saying.

A senior official in Georgia’s Interior Ministry dismissed the claim, but said the atmosphere was growing more tense in Mosabruni.

“They (the South Ossetians) are looking increasingly aggressive,” said Shota Utiashvili.

Georgia says its ceasefire agreement with Russia allows Georgian police to return to all areas where they were present before the conflict, including villages such as Mosabruni.

Reporting by Matt Robinson in Tbilisi and Dmitry Solovyov in Tskhinvali; Writing by Conor Sweeney in Moscow; Editing by Giles Elgood