MOSCOW – Police in South Ossetia have been ordered to shoot back if they come under fire — a directive that increases the threat of new violence in the Russian-backed separatist region which broke away from Georgia.
South Ossetia's top police official issued the order after a police post came under automatic weapons fire Saturday from the ethnic Georgian village of Nikozi, the separatist government said on its Web site.
Acting Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzayev said no one was hurt by the gunfire, which he called a provocation by Georgian forces.
"We will not allow our people and our officers to be killed," Mindzayev said in a statement.
Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili denied that Georgian forces fired at a South Ossetian post and said Nikozi came under fire early Saturday from South Ossetian-controlled territory.
A visiting U.S. diplomat toured Nikozi and other villages Sunday in Georgian territory outside South Ossetia, where residents have been returning after Russian troops withdrew earlier this month. Many homes in the area have been looted or burned, damage that Georgians blame on South Ossetians.
The visit by Daniel Fried, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, was the latest show of U.S. support for Georgia.
The shoot-back order came amid persistent tension along the breakaway region at the heart of the August war between Georgia and Russia.
South Ossetia's government also criticized European Union monitors who are patrolling Georgian territory outside South Ossetia after Russian forces withdrew under an EU-brokered cease-fire.
The separatist government accused the monitors of bias and claimed they are ignoring alleged Georgian cease-fire violations.
Georgia, in turn, has accused Russia and separatist forces of cease-fire violations, including the fatal shootings of at least two Georgian police officers.
The five-day war in August followed years of growing tension between Russia and Georgia, whose pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili has wooed Washington and pushed for NATO membership. Russia, meanwhile, gave increasing support to South Ossetia and another Georgian separatist province, Abkhazia.
Russia says will keep 7,600 troops in the breakaway regions, which it recognized as independent nations after the war.