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South Ossetia Jails Two Georgian Teens; Two Freed

Thomas Hammarberg

Thomas Hammarberg

TSKHINVALI (Reuters) -- Two Georgian teenagers were jailed in breakaway South Ossetia today and two were freed after days of European mediation secured the release of a group of South Ossetians held in Georgia.

A court in the rebel capital, Tskhinvali, sentenced the 16- and 17-year-olds to one year in prison after convicting them of illegally entering South Ossetia on November 4 armed with explosives, a Reuters cameraman at the court said.

Two others aged 14 were released.

Their detention had drawn angry condemnation from pro-Western Georgia, and the European Union had backed calls for their immediate release.

A spate of detentions on the poorly defined boundary is straining tensions more than a year since Russia crushed a Georgian assault on pro-Moscow South Ossetia in a five-day war that rocked the energy transit region.

Hours before the court sitting, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg accompanied five South Ossetians over the de facto border from Georgia.

The men had been held under Georgian police guard in a house in the garrison town of Gori since August after an earlier prisoner exchange collapsed.

Georgian broadcast media were silent on their release and there was no official confirmation from Georgia. Georgian officials bristled at talk of a prisoner exchange.

"There is no exchange," an Interior Ministry spokesman said after the South Ossetian authorities confirmed the release of the five and the Reuters cameraman saw them in Tskhinvali.