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Georgia: Tensions Rise In South Ossetia As Tbilisi Set To Unveil Peace Plan

Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia (file photo) Tensions between Georgia and its separatist republic of South Ossetia have heightened in recent days, with a series of kidnappings and detentions being reported near the demarcation line that marks the republic's border. Russia, which has peacekeepers in the region, has demanded that both sides refrain from any action that could rekindle sparks that put the region on the brink of full-scale military operations in the summer of 2004. The fresh tensions come as Georgia prepares to unveil a plan designed to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia, its other secessionist republic, back into the fold.

Prague, 24 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia have been brewing for days, with both blaming each other for incidents near the demarcation line that has divided them since the 1989-92 war.

On 22 January, ethnic Georgian villagers abducted 12 South Ossetians, including Makhar Gassiyev, a member of the separatist government. The incident took place near the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, in a part of the separatist republic under Georgian control.

In addition to being a deputy cabinet minister, Gassiyev is a member of the four-party Joint Control Commission (JCC)responsible for monitoring the Russian-brokered 1992 Dagomys cease-fire agreement.
Georgian media speculated that the prisoners might be in the hands of friends and relatives of Lado Chalauri, chief of police of South Ossetia's ethnic Georgian village of Eredvi. Chalauri was abducted in mid-January, allegedly by separatist security forces.

Although Gassiyev was freed a few hours later, a statement posted on the website of South Ossetia's Information and Press Committee described his brief detention as a violation of international law and a "direct incitement to war."

South Ossetian authorities claimed Gassiyev's treatment by his captors required his hospitalization.

As of today, 11 ethnic Ossetian villagers reportedly remained under Georgian custody.

Georgian media speculated that the prisoners might be in the hands of friends and relatives of Lado Chalauri, chief of police of South Ossetia's ethnic Georgian village of Eredvi. Chalauri was abducted in mid-January, allegedly by separatist security forces.

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said today that Tbilisi is demanding that the JCC -- which includes representatives of Georgia, Russia, North Ossetia, and South Ossetia -- meet in Tskhinvali to help secure the release of its policeman.

"We have demanded that an extraordinary meeting of the JCC take place so that the issue of Lado Chalauri be settled once and for all," Zhvania said. "This is of the utmost importance to us. Once again I want to say that we are not considering exchanging a state representative against an individual accused of killing two people."

Georgian authorities claimed that the separatist leadership demands that, in return for Chalauri, Tbilisi release at least one alleged South Ossetian criminal arrested earlier in January.

On 21 January, Nino Burjanadze, speaker of the Georgian parliament, described such demands as unacceptable.

"We will never tolerate that one uses the language of blackmail with us," Burjanadze said. "The government of Georgia -- and not only I, but all the citizens of Georgia stand behind it -- will not tolerate any blackmail. We can accept proposals and compromises, but we will not yield to provocations. The president has made it clear that he wants to settle the conflict through peaceful initiatives and we will do everything to implement them as long as they have a chance of succeeding, however small this chance may be."

In a strongly worded statement on 22 January, the Russian Foreign Ministry urged both sides to avoid confrontation, immediately release all their prisoners, and take steps to ensure an end to abductions and detentions.

Moscow said further incidents risked derailing the difficult normalization of ties that followed Georgia's decision in 2004 to send police and army reinforcements in South Ossetia, officially to curb contraband activities there. The move triggered a series of armed clashes that claimed the lives of at least 16 Georgian soldiers and an unspecified number of South Ossetians.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on 22 January convened his National Security Council to discuss the situation in South Ossetia. In response to Moscow's statement, he accused Russian peacekeepers stationed there and in Abkhazia, Georgia's other secessionist republic, of stirring instability by condoning criminal activities in both regions.

The Georgian leader also briefed government officials on his new peace initiatives for settling the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflicts. He said he intended to unveil it on 26 January before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg.

Zhvania, who attended the meeting, said yesterday that the plan offered South Ossetia broad autonomy in return for its recognition of Georgia's authority.

"These proposals are formulated in such a way that the issue of Georgia's existence as a unified state cannot be a matter of discussion," Zhvania said. "We are talking of transferring to the Tskhinvali region broad self-governing functions within South Ossetia. At the same time, functions such as defense, border control, customs, the financial and tax systems, and the rule of law must of course be the prerogative of the central government."

Authorities in Tskhinvali have not reacted to Zhvania's statement. Shortly before August's armed clashes, South Ossetia rejected a proposal by Saakashvili to give the region broad autonomy under Georgia's authority.

Whether anything innovative is contained in Georgia's new plan is unclear.

Georgia's National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili said yesterday that the autonomy Tbilisi is ready to offer South Ossetia is "no longer of a Soviet type" but "meets the demands of today's world."

As for Abkhazia, reports leaked to the Georgian press suggest it would be offered all possible rights expect that of a sovereign state.

But Abkhaz Prime Minister Nodar Khashba said on 22 January that his region would reject any plan that denies its existence "as an independent state."

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