Saturday, October 4, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia | A car exploded Friday outside the Russian military’s headquarters in South Ossetia, killing seven persons and wounding three, the government of the Moscow-backed separatist region said.

The chief of the Russian military in South Ossetia said the dead were all members of the Russian peacekeeping force based there, Russia‘s Interfax news agency reported.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry condemned the “crime” and said it was aimed at undermining efforts to ensure peace and security in South Ossetia and Georgia. However, there was no immediate indication that Russia would abandon its commitment to withdraw peacekeepers from a swath of land surrounding South Ossetia next week.

South Ossetia’s separatist President Eduard Kokoity called the blast “a targeted terrorist act” and said the Georgian security service was behind it, ITAR-Tass reported. But neither he nor other South Ossetian officials provided significant evidence, and Georgia denied involvement.

Tensions remain high in Georgia since the August war during which Russia’s military repelled a Georgian attack intended to regain control over South Ossetia.

Russia’s war with pro-Western, U.S.-supported Georgia and its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region, as independent states have further damaged already severely strained relations between Moscow and the West.

The South Ossetian government said on its Web site that the car exploded near a building used by leaders of the Russian peacekeeping force after the vehicle was found packed with explosives in an ethnic Georgian village and confiscated.

Mr. Kokoity said the vehicle had been “acquired on Georgian territory” and brought to the peacekeepers’ headquarters in South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, to be checked, ITAR-Tass reported. He said the dead included people who had driven the car there.

Mikhail Mindzayev, South Ossetia’s acting interior minister, gave a similar account on Russia’s NTV television.

Georgia’s Security Council chief, Alexander Lomaia, denied Georgian involvement and said that Russian “occupation forces” and South Ossetian separatists bear full responsibility for what happens in areas they control.

The explosion came as European Union monitors are replacing Russian troops - officially peacekeepers - in territory ringing South Ossetia.

Under cease-fire agreements, Russian forces are to be withdrawn from the territory by the middle of next week, but Russia plans to keep 3,800 troops in the separatist region itself - a presence U.S., NATO and the European Union say violates Russia’s cease-fire commitments.

The cease-fire agreements also rule out the use of force, so Russia could conceivably use the explosion as a pretext to slow its withdrawal. However, there was no immediate sign it would do so.

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