TBILISI (Reuters) -- The Russian-backed rebel region of South Ossetia freed three Georgian teenagers today in a move that appeared designed to boost opponents of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The prisoners were escorted over the de facto border by former Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, a fierce Saakashvili critic. It followed a visit by Nogaideli to Moscow this week.
Russia and South Ossetia say they want nothing to do with Saakashvili since Moscow crushed an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on the rebel region last year in a five-day war that rocked the South Caucasus, a transit route for oil and gas to the West.
Georgia was angered by the detention of four teenagers in early November and the subsequent sentencing of two of them to a year's imprisonment after they were convicted of illegally entering South Ossetia armed with explosives.
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said he had decided to pardon the two jailed teenagers as well as a third held since July, under an agreement reached with Council of Europe human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg.
"In a sign of our gratitude for your visit to South Ossetia, and taking into consideration the agreement reached with...Thomas Hammerberg, the South Ossetian side is prepared to pardon one more Georgian citizen in a gesture of goodwill," he was quoted as saying by the South Ossetian official website during talks with Nogaideli.
"The process of restoring good neighborly relations between Georgia and South Ossetia is irreversible, as is the process of recognition of South Ossetia as an independent state."
The Pacific island of Nauru this week joined Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Russia in recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian region, as independent states in what Russian media said was a deal worth $50 million in Russian aid.
The website quoted Nogaideli, who says Georgia and Russia must hold talks to resolve their differences, as saying he would work on the release of South Ossetians held in Georgian jails.
His spokeswoman told Reuters: "The only purpose of his visit to [South Ossetia's de facto capital] Tskhinvali was to release these children."