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Georgia: Russian Peacekeepers Detained In South Ossetia

South Ossetia's President Eduard Kokoity (epa) Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow heightened today with Georgia threatening to deport three Russian peacekeepers arrested overnight in its separatist republic of South Ossetia. Officials in Moscow blame Tbilisi for allegedly exacerbating the situation in the conflict zone as Georgian lawmakers keep pressing for all Russian troops stationed in South Ossetia to be withdrawn.

PRAGUE, 9 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia says its military police detained the three Russian officers near the village of Kurta on charges of violating visa regulations.

The Russian soldiers were reportedly arrested while traveling to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.

In comments broadcast on Rustavi-2 television station, Georgia's Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi Khaindrava said today all three men, who have no travel documents, would be deported to Russia.

Marat Kulakhmetov, the commander of the Russian peacekeeping battalion deployed in South Ossetia, harshly criticized the Georgian move: "The Russian peacekeeping contingent has no visas. There are thousands of agreements, which regulate our activities. The Georgian side has lately started artificially creating problems. I believe this incident is yet another gross provocation carried out, once again, by units of the Georgian Defense Ministry. At this stage, we've reinforced all our checkpoints and taken all steps so as to not allow any forceful incident to occur."

Addressing reporters in Moscow, Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov accused Georgia of deliberately escalating tensions in South Ossetia: "Today we see a clearly defined tendency on Tbilisi's part. As I see things, I believe [Tbilisi] is looking for an excuse to exacerbate the situation. Today I asked two [State Duma] committees -- the CIS affairs committee and the defense committee -- to prepare a detailed report. We already agreed to send a group of parliamentarians to the area in order to sort things out on the site. [Russian] deputies will not deflect their attention from what is happening there."

Gryzlov also blamed Georgia for allegedly sending army units to South Ossetia in violation of all demilitarization agreements concluded after the separatist republic forcibly won de facto independence in the early 1990s.

Khaindrava today denied the charge and in turn accused Russian peacekeepers of deploying armored vehicles in the conflict zone without the consent of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) that monitors the 1992 Georgian-South Ossetian ceasefire agreement.

Peacekeeping Force

The JCC comprises representatives of Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia, which all have peacekeeping contingents in the conflict zone.

Georgian government officials have long accused Russian peacekeepers of secretly arming South Ossetia, initiating sabotage operations against Georgian targets, and condoning the activities of smuggling rings based in the conflict zone.

Arguing that Moscow's peacekeeping mission poses a threat to national security, Georgian lawmakers earlier this week held a restricted parliamentary debate on whether Tbilisi should further consent to have Russian troops stationed in South Ossetia.

Parliament To Decide

The legislature is expected to make a final decision by 15 February after further consultations with the government. If parliament decides against the presence of Russian troops, lawmakers would then recommend that the executive branch of power formally demand that Moscow withdraw all its troops from South Ossetia.

Both Moscow and Tskhinvali say they suspect Georgia of seeking the withdrawal of Russian troops with a view to forcibly reasserting control over its separatist republic.

Addressing reporters in Moscow today, South Ossetia's President Eduard Kokoity accused the Georgian leadership of deliberately seeking confrontation for domestic purposes: "We're awaiting a social explosion in Georgia this coming spring. Those promises made by the Georgian reformers and [President Mikheil] Saakashvili are just soap bubbles that will burst, that have already burst in fact. The [Georgian] people have the right to ask [their leaders]: where are those things you promised us, what about those social improvements you talked about? In order to deflect the attention of the Georgian people from those important issues, they need a victory."

Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze was expected to raise the issue of Russia's peacekeeping mandate at a CIS parliamentary meeting that starts today in Kyiv.

Also today, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili touched upon the situation in South Ossetia before the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna.

An OSCE statement quoted Bezhuashvili as calling upon the international community to actively support what he described as Tbilisi's peaceful efforts to settle its dispute with Tskhinvali.

Responding to the Georgian envoy, U.S. Ambassador Julie Finley welcomed Tbilisi's stated commitment to find a political solution to the separatist conflict and urged all sides to work together in seeking a peaceful resolution.

But Georgian media reported Finley also sent Tbilisi a veiled warning, saying that "a request for the [Russian] peacekeepers to leave without anything in their place may be destabilizing."