Russia frees 12 Georgians

August 28, 2008 5:41:55 AM PDT
Russian forces turned over 12 Georgian soldiers on the border of one of the separatist provinces under its control Thursday after the short war that outraged the West and brought Moscow's military deep into Georgia. The release along the Inguri River separating Abkhazia from Georgia proper was a small conciliatory gesture amid the high tensions and belligerent posturing of the weeks following the end of the fighting.

The soldiers, who were detained Aug. 18 in the seaport of Poti, appeared unharmed and some were smiling.

Also on Thursday, Georgia's foreign minister said ethnic Georgians were being cleared from their homes in South Ossetia, the country's other separatist province. Eka Tkeshelashvili described the forced moves as ethnic cleansing, though she did not specify who she was accusing of carrying it out.

She spoke Thursday in Vienna at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russian troops remain at checkpoints well into Georgia, saying that a cease-fire agreement allows them to occupy "security zones" outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Escalating the tensions, South Ossetia on Thursday claimed to have shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane in its territory. Georgia's Interior Ministry denied the report.

The five-day war started Aug. 7 when Georgian forces launched a massive barrage on South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, only to be quickly driven out by Russian troops, who then pushed deep into Georgia proper.

Russia on Tuesday recognized both territories as independent republics, a move denounced in Georgia and abroad. The regions make up roughly 20 percent of Georgia's territory - and include miles of prime coastline along the Black Sea.

Criticized by the West, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday asked China and four ex-Soviet nations to sign a declaration of support for Russia's role in the conflict in Georgia.

But Russia's hopes of gathering support were dealt a huge blow when the five countries denounced the use of force and called for respect for every country's territorial integrity. The joint declaration from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization deepens Russia's international isolation.

Medvedev had appealed to the alliance - which consists of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - for unanimous support of Russia's response to Georgia's "aggression."

Medvedev's appeal had raised fears in Western capitals of the emergence of a competing strategic alliance to NATO forming around Russia - but the other Asian nations may have been reluctant to strain their relations with Europe and the United States.

Medvedev also discussed the situation in Georgia's breakaway regions with Chinese President Hu Jintao. China has traditionally been wary of supporting separatist movements, mindful of its own problems with Tibet and Muslims in the western territory of Xinjiang.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying "the situation in the region ... should be resolved in dialogue."

Moscow said NATO's plans for expansion and Western support for Georgia had caused the new East-West divisions, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lashed out at the United States for using military ships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia.

The tensions have spread to the Black Sea, which Russia shares unhappily with three nations that belong to NATO and two others that desperately want to, Ukraine and Georgia. Some Ukrainians fear Moscow might set its sights on their nation next.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said some European Union countries have asked the 27-member bloc to consider sanctions against Russia following its recognition of the breakaway territories. The EU is "trying to draw up a strong text, sigifying our unwillingness to accept" Russia's stance, Kouchner said.

"Sanctions are being considered ... and many other means as well," Kouchner said at news conference. He did not elaborate.

Britain's top diplomat said Russia's actions threaten to undermine stability in Europe.

"We are in a situation which marks a clear end to the relative and growing calm in and around Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The Kremlin has rejected Western criticism, and even suggested the conflict could spread. It starkly warned another former Soviet republic, tiny Moldova, that aggression against a breakaway region there could provoke a military response.

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Associated Press Writers Jim Heintz and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia; and Catrina Stewart, Nataliya Vasilyeva, Maria Danilova and Steve Gutterman in Moscow contributed to this report.


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