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Russia, Georgia Exchange Prisoners, Amid Tensions Over Withdrawal

Russian soldiers look on during an exchange of prisoners near the village of Igoeti.

Russian and Georgian forces have started exchanging prisoners amid continued tension over Russia's promised withdrawal from positions in Georgia.

The brief handover took place in the village of Igoeti, on the road between Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and the besieged city of Gori. Russian tanks and armored vehicles are dug in on the hillside in Igoeti, while Georgian police in white pick-up trucks man a checkpoint.

Russian forces are maintaining positions deep inside Georgia proper. Russia and Georgia signed a cease-fire at the weekend, with Moscow pledging to begin pulling back its troops on August 18, but reports say there has so far been little sign of any significant force withdrawal.

During the prisoner exchange, two Russian helicopters landed in nearby fields, and a Reuters correspondent saw several uniformed, unarmed men escorted in single file by Russian soldiers to the center of the road.

From the Georgian side, the correspondent saw at least one Russian pilot -- shot down during Russian air strikes -- carried out on a stretcher.

Georgia said it handed over five Russian servicemen, in exchange for 15 Georgians, including two civilians. Officials from both sides shook hands and signed a prisoner-exchange deal at a table set up in the road.

'Process Went Smoothly'

"The process went smoothly. It was mediated by the French ambassador," said Georgian National Security Council secretary Kakha Lomaia.

He said Tbilisi believed Russia was still holding two Georgian soldiers, captured during fighting for control of Tskhinvali, capital of Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region.

Russian Army soldiers carry a wounded Russian pilot during the exchange.
"Everything went according to the agreement," said Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov, commander of Russian forces in the region. "We agreed on future exchanges if there are other prisoners."

Meanwhile, in the besieged Georgian city of Gori, RFE/RL special correspondent Goga Aptsiauri says some of the residents who had fled appear to be returning in greater numbers. He quotes a local administration official as saying there are some 15,000 residents in Gori now, up from 5,000 three or four days ago..

Aptsiauri reports some Russian troop movements in Gori overnight and Russian foot patrols in the city center.

Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told French radio from Brussels that Russia has begun pulling its troops out of Georgia but said their complete withdrawal will depend on the actions of Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili.

"The withdrawal of Russian forces has already started," Rogozin said. "Of course, we will have to wait a few days to carry out this six-point [peace] plan."

OSCE Wants To Monitor

He said he was referring to a troop withdrawal from South Ossetia. He said Russia "must do what is necessary to neutralize all possibility of revenge by Saakashvili, who is the aggressor."

Rogozin was speaking ahead of a special meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels that was called to discuss the Georgia crisis.

Speaking in Brussels ahead of the NATO meeting, the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it is pushing to send observers to monitor the cease-fire immediately, despite Russian objections.

"We're looking at a solution where we would be able to send 20 OSCE military monitors today with 80 to follow up in the next few days," said Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, whose country currently holds the OSCE's rotating presidency. "We need to open the door to get military monitors in."

with agency reports

Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Video of the fighting in Georgia's breakaway regions, and the latest efforts to end the conflict (Reuters video). Play

For full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here.
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