An explosion has killed the mayor of a small town near the separatist region of Abkhazia, Georgia's Interior Ministry said.
The explosion early Saturday morning killed Mujhava Mayor Gia Mebonia while he was inspecting a house damaged by overnight shelling. A villager was also killed and a local police officer was seriously injured.
The explosion comes at a time of increasing tension in the areas surrounding the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia and Georgia fought a war over South Ossetia in August. Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said authorities found an antenna near the blast site and suspect the explosives were detonated by remote control. Utiashvili blamed separatists and their backers.
"We are working now only on one version and this is the Abkhaz and the Russians," Utiashvili said. "Nobody else." A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman in Moscow who identified himself only as Lt. Col. Kochetko said he had no information on the blast.
Video taken after the explosion shows several people lying injured on the ground and villagers screaming and fleeing down a dirt road.
Some villagers said the explosion had not been detonated by remote control. They said it was caused by a projectile fired from inside the separatist border.
"Something was launched in our direction," said local policeman Gia Pipia. "We were all gathered together and then shots came from the Russian side."
EU observers, in the area to investigate the overnight shelling, were just 100 meters away when the blast hit, said a spokesman for the mission.
"An EU monitoring team was investigating reports of an alleged earlier incident during the night when explosions occurred near a house nearby," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with his job requirements. "There were reports of explosions and shooting."
Despite their proximity to the blast, the monitors were unable to determine its origin, the spokesman said.
Monitors found spent casings from rocket propelled grenades nearby the scene of the attack.
UN monitors were also nearby. Two white armored vehicles bearing the UN insignia can be seen very near the site of the explosion in the video footage.
An official with the UN monitoring mission in the nearby town of Zugdidi declined comment.
On Friday, Georgia accused the Russian-backed separatists of blowing up bridges connecting Abkhazia to Georgia proper. Russia maintains 7,200 troops in the two breakaway republics.
Moscow recognized the independence of those areas following the war with Georgia, a move that angered Georgia and its western allies. The war began after years of increasing tension between Russia and Georgia, whose pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili has cultivated close ties with Washington and pushed to bring his nation into NATO. Georgia straddles a key westward route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region, and has become a focus of competition for regional clout between Russia and the West.