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TBILISI (Reuters) -- Rights groups have accused U.S. ally Georgia of illegally holding five South Ossetian men as hostages for four months before trading them in a prisoner exchange.

The case casts light on the murky issue of civilians missing or detained since Georgia launched a military assault against its rebel region of South Ossetia last year, sparking a brief war in which it was defeated by Russia.

The Georgian Young Lawyers' Association (GYLA), a nongovernmental human rights organization, said relatives of the men had appealed to them for help, but that Georgian officials had denied any knowledge of their whereabouts.

"Their detention was absolutely illegal and was against Georgian and any international law," lawyer Nino Khaindrava of the GYLA told Reuters.

Georgia and South Ossetia both accuse each other of holding people illegally. South Ossetia says Georgia is holding 40 people, but this may include criminals convicted before the war. Georgia says 13 people are being held by the Ossetians.

EU monitors acknowledge they did not make the case public after they found out about the five missing Ossetians in October when Georgia replied to an appeal filed by relatives to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The EU monitors, who were deployed after the war, visited the men on November 20, more than three months into their detention in a house in the town of Gori.

Prisoner Exchange

The men, originally arrested on weapons charges, had been freed by a court on August 4. The Georgian Interior Ministry says they were then taken to be used in a prisoner swap.

When that exchange collapsed, they were kept in a house in Gori. They were released on December 2, when a court in South Ossetia also freed two 14-year-old Georgians arrested on weapons charges in November. Two other Georgian teenagers were jailed.

Asked whether the EU monitors had raised with the Georgian authorities the legality of holding the South Ossetians, a spokesman for the EU mission said, "No, not specifically".

"We were content with the physical conditions they were being held in," he said. Asked why the mission did not call publicly for their release, as it had with the Georgian teenagers, the spokesman said, "We've said very clearly that all detainees should be released at the earliest opportunity."

The Georgian Interior Ministry, asked about the basis for holding the men, said: "They were supposed to be exchanged. They were living in a private house under police supervision."

Khaindrava said the GYLA had also filed a case against Russia in the Strasbourg court, citing information that four Georgians, including a 15-year-old, are being held in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, behind the Russian-controlled de facto border.

Council of Europe human rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg, who mediated the release of the five Ossetians, said of the case: "I think if someone is acquitted by a court, they should be free. According to their version, they were not free."

Hammarberg admitted that the international community had probably "done too little" on the case.
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