A car crash, which appeared to be an ordinary accident, grew into a brawl between Georgian forces and Russian peacekeepers in the South Ossetian conflict zone on January 31, further fueling tensions on the eve of parliamentary hearings, which will most likely result in Tbilisi demanding a pull-out of Russian troops from the conflict zone.
On January 31 a truck carrying a Russian peacekeeping battalion crashed into a car driven by a local resident of the Georgian village of Tkviavi - just a few kilometers from the administrative border with breakaway South Ossetia which is under the responsibility of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces stationed in the conflict zone. No one was injured.
The Georgian forces, which reportedly involved officers from the Military Police, local police, as well as Georgian peacekeeping battalion stationed in the conflict zone, seized the Russian vehicle and send it to the town of Gori for, as the Georgian side put it, “further investigation.”
Georgian television stations showed footage of Russian peacekeepers and Georgian uniformed men brawling after the Russian peacekeepers dispatched several armored vehicles to the village, following a decision by the Georgian police to confiscate the peacekeeper's vehicle after the crash.
According to the South Ossetian side, Tbilisi has dispatched additional forces in the village – up to 500 servicemen from a battalion stationed in Gori - which, according to the South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity “is a violation of existing agreements.” But the Georgian side has strongly denied this allegation. Tensions were reportedly defused overnight on February 1 when the Russian peacekeepers pulled their armored vehicles out of Tkviavi.
While on February 1 Russia and Georgian officials accused each other of “staging a provocation,” both sides agreed that the risk of tensions growing into an armed confrontation was high on January 31.
Commander of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces stationed in the conflict zone, Marat Kulakhmetov, who was at the site, said that the incident was “provoked by the Georgian side.”
“In case a similar incident is repeated the command of the Russian peacekeeping forces will be ready to undertake the strictest measures, including the use of firearms,” RIA Novosti news agency reported quoting Marat Kulakhmetov as saying.
Unlike other Georgian officials, President Saakashvili made a relatively moderate statement on February 1 and said that Tbilisi will refrain from taking any “radical measures” in the South Ossetian conflict zone.
“We are ready to undertake all possible steps, but in accordance with our interests. We are not going to undertake any impulsive, extremely radical measures, which might even slightly be harmful for Georgia,” Saakashvili told reporters.
As expected, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili spoke harshly about the Russian peacekeepers and said that the Georgian side will return the confiscated vehicle to the Russian peacekeepers only after an official apology is given and only after the Russian side compensates for the damage sustained by the local Tkviavi resident, whose car was damaged in a crash.
“The Russian soldiers acted in a very rude manner… Naturally, the Military Police, as well as the Georgian peacekeeping battalion deployed in the conflict zone decided to resist them and to confiscate the vehicle… It was outrageous as well when they [Russian peacekeepers] dispatched military hardware to the village of Tkviavi… That is why our response was appropriate and the vehicle was confiscated; although there was minor tension and a threat of an escalation of the conflict our soldiers acted in a very attentive manner,” Okruashvili said.
Secretary of National Security Council of Georgia Kote Kemularia said that the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Georgia “poses a certain threat” to the country.
Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze said that the January 31 incident “demonstrates once again that, unfortunately, we constantly face a danger of provocations.”
She also said that the Russian peacekeepers “failed to use a four-month term given by the Georgian Parliament in order to improve the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone.”
Burjanadze was referring to the Georgian Parliament’s resolution adopted on October 10, 2005. According to this resolution, the government should report to the Parliament by February 10, 2006 about the peace process in the South Ossetian conflict zone. If the Parliament decides that no progress has been made, the lawmakers will demand that the peacekeepers begin withdrawing, starting from February 15, 2006.
Parliamentary hearings about the performance of the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia will reportedly take place on February 7. It is most likely that the Parliament will instruct the government to launch procedures for the peacekeepers’ withdrawal.