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Europe

Spain Calls for Closer EU-Georgia Ties Amid Reports of Clashes

Spain will push for closer ties between the EU and Georgia following the conflict with Russia, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said Saturday as gunfire is reported between rival groups in Georgia.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, right, greets Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili at EU headquarters in Brussels

Georgia and the EU have good relations but some feel they should be closer

"I think the time has come for advancing the relationship between Georgia and the European Union," Moratinos said at a joint press conference with Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili.

"We are working on certain practical steps of visa facilitation, some free-trade relationship, but I think we need a political signal... and this signal could be a potential agreement between Georgia and the European Union."

Moratinos met Friday with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and was to travel to the port of Poti later Saturday to meet a Spanish contingent of EU monitors observing a ceasefire following Georgia's August war with Russia.

The EU brokered the ceasefire agreement, has vowed to build closer ties with Georgia following the conflict and has pledged up to 500 million euros ($673 million) in reconstruction aid.

Georgia is hoping that EU member nations will agree at an international donors conference in Brussels on Wednesday to match that sum between them.

Russia sent troops into Georgia on August 8 to repel a Georgian military attempt to retake the Moscow-backed rebel region of South Ossetia.

Russian forces withdrew to within South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia, earlier this month under the terms of the ceasefire.

But Moscow plans to keep up to 7,600 troops in the two rebel regions, which it recognized as independent states after the conflict.

South Ossetians accuse Georgia of shooting

South Ossetia separatist fighters rest near an armored vehicle in the town of Dzhava, South Ossetia

South Ossetia separatists claim they were fired on

The Spanish statement came as Russia-backed separatists in South Ossetia accused Georgian forces of firing on their soldiers in the first such reported incident since the brief war.

A spokesman for Georgia's interior ministry confirmed shooting in the area near the Georgian village of Nikozi but said it was coming from drunken Russian soldiers at a border post and that they were firing into the air.

The spokesman also said that a Russian spy plane had been spotted flying briefly into Georgian airspace near the same village on Saturday in what was "obviously" a violation of an EU-brokered ceasefire agreement.

"The Georgian side has fired on security force posts of the Republic of South Ossetia," the separatist government said on its official website, quoting the de facto interior minister of the province, Mikhail Mindzayev.

No casualties were reported from the shooting, the statement said.

"South Ossetian security force posts near the Georgian village of Nikozi came under fire from machine guns and other firearms this morning. It happened as South Ossetian positions in the border zones were being set up," he said.

South Ossetia separatist leaders have since ordered their soldiers to return fire if shot at by Georgian forces. "From today all posts have been given an order to return fire if their posts come under fire," the separatist government said on its official website, quoting Mindzayev.

The province's leader, Eduard Kokoity, meanwhile accused European Union monitors in the region of being biased, failing to uphold an EU-brokered ceasefire and making the situation worse, Russian news agencies reported.

Georgia's interior ministry gave a very different account of the incident.

"Drunk Russian soldiers were firing into the air" at a security post near Nikozi, which is located on the Georgian side along the de facto border with South Ossetia, said Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for the ministry.

Utiashvili also said: "A Russian drone flew over Nikozi this morning and then returned to Tskhinvali," the capital of South Ossetia. He said the spy plane was in Georgian airspace for up to 20 minutes.

Cross-border incidents on the rise despite ceasefire

A South Ossetian separatist fighter looks on at an unknown location in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia

South Ossetians have been accused of firing at Georgians

This is the first time South Ossetian authorities have reported shooting from Georgian positions since a conflict in August between Russian forces and South Ossetian militias on one side and Georgian forces on the other.

Georgia has reported several shootings from the South Ossetian side.

Following the conflict with Georgia, Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway province of Georgia, as independent states in a move that was roundly condemned by Western powers and Georgia.

Tensions remain high despite a ceasefire in place in the region as Georgian authorities have said Russia must pull all its forces out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in order to comply with the ceasefire agreement.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from the rest of Georgia with Russian backing in the early 1990s in conflict that killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands of Georgians to flee their homes.

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