AS Georgians turned out to vote for independence on Sunday, polling places in the northern part of the republic were quiet. But guns were not. The autonomous region of South Ossetia has been gripped by civil war for the last four months. What started out as random vigilante actions has developed into full "combat operations," according to the official Tass news agency.
About 12,000 Georgian militants surround Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, preparing for a "massive attack," Tass said.
Amid the violence, Georgia proceeded with its independence referendum. Georgian President Zviad Gam-sakhurdia predicted 80 percent of those casting ballots would favor independence. Turn-out was heavy, with 60 percent of the 3.4 million registered voters polling by early afternoon, organizers said.
No voting occurred in South Ossetia, however, because it was impossible to provide security for election offi- cials, said Archil Chirakabze, head of the central election commission.
The conflict pits Ossetians, longtime allies of the Kremlin, against Georgian zealots anxious to gain independence from Moscow. An attempt by the Ossetians to unite with neighboring North Ossetia, located in the Russian Federation, sparked the hostilities. Georgian nationalists responded by abolishing Ossetian autonomy within the republic. When the Ossetians resisted, the Georgians sent in militia units and imposed a blockade.
The Georgian government insists that the Ossetian sovereignty movement is a Kremlin-inspired plot to stall the Georgian independence drive. The nationalists have long resented the presence of an Ossetian homeland on Georgian territory. They claim South Ossetia was artificially created in 1924 to reward the nationality group that aided the Soviet conquest of Georgia, which was independent from 1918-21.
"They [Ossetians] want to create a republic within our republic, and we will not allow that," said Mr. Gamsakhurdia. "Moscow has created these extremist forces.... They are supplied by the Soviet Army with rockets and the most recent weapons."
Ossetian leaders say the Georgians are determined to wipe out their cultural heritage. Thus, they view Moscow and the union as their protectors.
"If Georgia leaves the Soviet Union and if we continue to remain part of Georgia, then we will become foreigners in our own homeland," says Khsar Jikaev, a member of the Tskhinvali city council.
Mr. Jikaev denies that Ossetians take orders from Moscow. "You can buy arms anywhere if you have enough money," he says. Ossetian nationalists are concerned about their future in an independent Georgian state. The Georgian government will remember those who opposed the drive for sovereignty, perhaps denying them citizenship, says Georgian presidential aide Murman Omanidze.
So far, at least 50 people have been killed, but reliable figures were difficult to obtain, because of communications problems.
While the fighting continues, civilians suffer. In Tskhinvali, residents have gone for months at a time without running water or electricity. Food is scarce because the roads are blockaded, leaving the helicopter as the primary means for bringing in supplies. The city resembles a ghost town. In the countryside, the situation is even more chaotic, with partisans almost daily pillaging homes and springing ambushes.
Both ethnic Georgians and Ossetians have been forced to flee the area, creating about 25,000 refugees, Tass says.
Soviet Interior Ministry troops are stationed in the area, ostensibly as a peace- keeping force. But Ossetians say the troops remain shut inside their barracks on the edge of town most of the time.
"The Army isn't doing a thing to stop the fighting," said Arkady Shivkaev, a South Ossetian militia member. "After Lithuania, they are afraid to get involved."
Recently, Gamsakhurdia and Russian Federation leader Boris Yeltsin agreed to form a joint peace-keeping force to disarm the combatants. But the fighting continues to rage days after the agreement was signed.
"Every night it's like fireworks. They fire rocket-propelled grenades at us and we respond," said Lt. Col. Georgia Pochorashvili, of the Georgian militia, as he stood behind a barricade on the heights overlooking the city.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sent a telegram Saturday to Gamsakhurdia, ordering the Georgians to lift the blockade. But as the conflict drags on, it becomes increasingly unlikely a compromise can be found.
The differences were perhaps made irreconcilable when Ossetians held balloting in the March 17 national referendum on revitalizing the union, voting overwhelmingly in favor of Moscow. Georgia was one of six republics to boycott the vote.
"It is Moscow's aggression," said Gamsakhurdia. "It will go on as long as the Kremlin exists."