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Shots fired as leaders near South Ossetia

Gunfire broke out yesterday on the South Ossetian de facto border after a convoy carrying the Georgian and Polish presidents approached, forcing them to turn back, officials said.

Georgia and Russia, which fought a five-day war in August, accused each other of provocation over the incident.

"Frankly I didn't expect Russians to open fire. I thought they clearly saw that this was an official cortege, this was a high delegation," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said, speaking in English in comments broadcast on BBC World Service radio.

"Clearly it was intended as a provocation, certainly I would never intend to put the life of the president of Poland in danger, that was none of my intention but the reality is that you know you are dealing with unpredictable people," he added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is accompanying President Dmitry Medvedev on a trip to Latin America, shrugged off Georgian accusations.

"This is a clear provocation," he told reporters in the Peruvian capital Lima. "It is not the first time they are doing so. They are organising the provocation and then blame the Russian side."

"Inviting the (Polish) president to Tbilisi and then taking him for a car ride to a different country - isn't that a provocation?" he added.

Lavrov stopped short of accusing Tbilisi of setting up the shooting incident, but denied any Russian responsibility.

"There was no shooting from either the Russian or the Ossetian side," he said.

A spokeswoman for Saakashvili said that Russian troops manning a checkpoint on the de facto border opened fire when the convoy approached.

The spokeswoman was not present at the scene, just south of the town of Akhalgori. A witness travelling with Saakashvili told Reuters that uniformed men who appeared to be South Ossetians fired shots into the air when officials began getting out of their cars.

Both Russia and South Ossetia strongly denied involvement.

Shaky television pictures were inconclusive. Automatic gunfire could be heard but it was unclear where from. No one was hurt and the convoy turned back.

"We heard machine-gun volleys about 30 metres from where I was," the Polish PAP news agency quoted Polish President Lech Kaczynski as saying.

He later told a news conference: "I appeal from this spot to my friends in the European Union to draw the proper conclusions from this event before it is too late ... I do not regret that trip along that dark road."

Russia intervened in Georgia in August to repel a Georgian bid to retake breakaway South Ossetia from pro-Moscow separatists. Russian forces have pulled back from buffer zones into South Ossetian territory and a 225-strong EU mission is monitoring a fragile ceasefire.