Breakaway Provinces Spark War of Words

TBILISI, Georgia -- Russian and Georgian diplomats traded angry statements Friday, accusing each other of stalling talks on Georgia's separatist province of South Ossetia, in a sign of growing tensions between the two countries.

The statements by the two countries' foreign ministries followed a harsh exchange of words between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Saakashvili accused the Kremlin of "gangster occupation" of parts of his nation and seeking to annex its separatist provinces, while Lavrov fired back, accusing the Georgian leader of lying.

Moscow was also clearly displeased when NATO ministers this week endorsed stronger ties between the alliance and Tbilisi. Moscow harshly criticized the decision, saying it could upset fragile stability in the Caucasus and hurt Russia's interests.

In a statement issued last Friday, the Foreign Ministry accused Georgia of stalling the work of the so-called joint control commission that has been mediating talks on the status of the unrecognized province of South Ossetia, which broke away from the central government in a bloody war in the early 1990s. Besides Georgia and South Ossetia, the group includes Russia and the republic of North Ossetia, which borders the breakaway province.

In response, Georgia's Foreign Ministry charged that the group "had discredited itself entirely" and "had long turned into an absolutely ineffective mechanism of the peace process, and the so-called Russian peacekeepers had become a stronghold of the separatist regime's security."

Georgia's ministry also reiterated accusations that Russian peacekeepers in the region, with which Moscow has cultivated strong ties, were supporting the separatist government rather than helping settle the conflict.

Tensions have mounted recently between Tbilisi and South Ossetia, which Saakashvili has vowed to bring back into the fold. Several soldiers were killed on both sides and South Ossetian forces fired on a helicopter carrying Georgia's defense minister.

In the latest incident of violence, a spokeswoman for the South Ossetian government said Georgian troops fired at its soldiers Saturday afternoon, wounding two officers.

A spokesman for Georgian peacekeepers deployed in the region vehemently denied that, saying the incident was the result of friendly fire between South Ossetian troops.

South Ossetia is to hold a referendum on independence in November that it hopes will strengthen its bid for independence.

President Vladimir Putin on Saturday called Saakashvili "hot-tempered." "If such political will is shown by all sides involved in the conflict, we can count on having a result," Putin told reporters in France.