South Ossetian Police Told to Fire Back

APMoratinos speaking with Spanish observers from an EU monitoring mission in Georgia's port city of Poti on Saturday.
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 that broke away from Georgia.

South Ossetia's top police official issued the order after a police post came under automatic weapons fire Saturday from an ethnic Georgian village, the separatist government said on its web site.

Acting Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzayev said no one was hurt by the gunfire, but he called it one of several provocations 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.

The order came amid persistent tension along the edges of this 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 this month under a cease-fire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The separatist government accused the monitors of bias and claimed that they are ignoring alleged Georgian cease-fire violations.

"The tendentiousness of the international observers is obvious," South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said in a statement. "Georgia is violating the [cease-fire] with its actions while these international observers watch silently."

In Geneva, the UN refugee agency said Friday that 20,000 Georgians displaced by the August war have returned home since Russian troops pulled out of a so-called buffer zone around South Ossetia on Oct. 8. Spokesman Ron Redmond said the agency had closed its temporary camp in Gori because all of the town's residents had returned. The agency is building permanent housing for about 5,000 people who cannot go back in the long term.

Meanwhile, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos told reporters in Tbilisi on Saturday that Spain would back Georgia's bid to join NATO and build closer ties with the European Union when Madrid takes the EU's rotating presidency in 2010. He also pledged to increase ties with Georgia and spoke forcefully in defense of its territorial integrity.