Georgia, Russia trade prisoners amid Russian pullout

August 20th, 2008 - 1:20 am ICT by IANS  

Tbilisi/Moscow, Aug 19 (DPA) Russia and Georgia exchanged prisoners Tuesday as Russian troops slowly began pulling out of the conflict region in Georgia.The Russian military said the withdrawal was being delayed to avoid creating a power vacuum that could lead to further violence in northern Georgia.

“We clearly state that we will fulfill our obligations agreed to in the six-point plan, but we shall do so at a tempo dictated by conditions on the ground,” Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nagovitsyn told a Moscow press briefing.

In Brussels, NATO foreign ministers said they would suspend “business as usual” with Moscow, provoking a strong reaction from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who accused the Western alliance of being “biased” and “one-sided”.

In a conciliatory step, Russia agreed Tuesday to the stationing of 20 military observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, whose country holds the OSCE’s rotating presidency, told journalists in Brussels the mission could be expanded to more than 90. Georgia also agreed to the mission.

Russian forces were permitting Georgian civilian vehicles and foot traffic along most, but not all, roads in their sectors of control, but checked travelers for weapons.

Russian forces disarmed 20 Georgian para-military soldiers operating in the Russian zone of control in the Black Sea port of Poti and turned them over to Georgian authorities.

Television images showed the Georgians riding blindfolded on Russian armored personnel carriers.

Earlier, Russian army officials at the Igoeti checkpoint, at the boundary between Georgian and Russian lines just 50 km from Tbilisi, handed over 15 Georgian prisoners of war and received five Russian servicemen in exchange, including two pilots.

It was the first handover of prisoners since the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia less than two weeks ago.

Moscow released a list of Georgian military equipment captured in the conflict, including 65 tanks, more than 30 other armoured vehicles, Osa anti-aircraft systems, Czech-built self-propelled howitzers, and more than 2,000 rifles and machine guns.

“We will not give any of it back,” said Ivan Konashekov, a Kremlin spokesman. “We will use it ourselves, or destroy it.”

The Kremlin also specified its own aircraft losses in the war: three ground attack aircraft, and four high-level bombers.

Refugees were returning in small numbers both to the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and to Gori in central Georgia.

The UN would donate $57 million towards humanitarian aid in Georgia, a UN official in Tbilisi said Tuesday.

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