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Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia will hold a referendum on joining Russia on July 17, the region’s leader announced on Friday.

“Anatoly Bibilov signed a decree on holding a referendum in the Republic of South Ossetia,” his office said in a statement, citing his people’s “historic aspiration” to join Russia.

South Ossetia was at the center of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, after which the Kremlin recognized the territory – along with another breakaway region, Abkhazia – as an independent state and stationed military bases there.

“We are going home,” Bibilov said on the Telegram messaging app. “The time has come to unite once and for all. “South Ossetia and Russia will be together. This is the beginning of a great new story.

Bibilov lost his re-election bid earlier this month. Russia has expressed hope that the new leader, Alan Gagloev, will preserve the “continuity” of relations with Moscow.

The announcement came on the 79th day of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, with thousands dead and more than six million people fleeing the pro-Western country.

Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have also expressed interest in joining Russia.

The large-scale offensive against Ukraine has sparked an outpouring of solidarity in Georgia. Georgia has previously denounced South Ossetia’s plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia as “unacceptable”.

In August 2008, Russia launched an assault on Georgia, which was fighting pro-Russian militias in South Ossetia, after shelling Georgian villages. The fighting ended five days later with a European Union-brokered ceasefire, but left more than 700 dead and displaced tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians.

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