Georgia fears war over region's independence vote

GEORGIA'S breakaway South Ossetia province overwhelmingly endorsed its split with Tbilisi yesterday in a referendum that Georgia's prime minister said was part of a Russian campaign to stoke a war.

The prime minister's stark language was tempered by the removal before the vote of the hawkish Georgian defence minister, the strongest sign yet that Tbilisi wants to ease a standoff with the separatists and their Russian backers. Election officials in South Ossetia said 99 per cent of the roughly 50,000 voters said "Yes" to separation from Tbilisi - a defiant reaffirmation of a split that has existed since a war in the early 1990s.

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Zurab Nogaideli, the Georgian prime minister, said the vote was a "provocation" and part of a Kremlin strategy to ratchet up tensions in the region.

"They are portraying us as if we are going to start a war there, which has never been our intention," he said during a visit to the European Union headquarters in Brussels. "Their recent rhetoric and action are making us draw the conclusion that they themselves are getting prepared for a war."

A sliver of land in the Caucasus mountains, South Ossetia has no international recognition, but is propped up by the Russian government.