Oct 26, 2009

Georgia says Russian forces abducted 16 residents

TBILISI — Georgia on Monday accused Russian forces of abducting 16 residents from within Georgian-controlled territory near the Russian-backed rebel region of South Ossetia.

South Ossetia's separatist administration confirmed the men had been arrested but said they had crossed into rebel-held territory.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told AFP the residents were detained Sunday afternoon by Russian forces in the Dusheti district near the disputed Akhalgori region.

"Sixteen men, who were collecting firewood... were kidnapped by Russian occupying forces," he said. "We are currently working on their liberation."

Merab Chigoyev, an aide to South Ossetian rebel leader Eduard Kokoity, said the 16 men had been detained by Russian guards after crossing the de-facto border and "carrying out illegal deforestation" on South Ossetian territory.

"The detained Georgian citizens... have been handed over to regional prosecutors," he said in a statement posted on the rebel administration's website.

The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia said it was concerned by the incident and called for talks.

"EUMM expresses concern about the recent incident in which 16 Georgian citizens... were arrested by Russian border guards whilst cutting firewood," the mission, which has about 225 monitors in Georgia, said in a statement.

"EUMM urges all parties to discuss and settle the matter," it said.

Tensions remain high around South Ossetia following last year's Georgia-Russia war over the breakaway region.

The five-day war in August 2008 saw Russian troops and tanks pour into Georgia to repel a Georgian military attempt to retake control of South Ossetia, which had received extensive Russian backing for years.

Days after the conflict, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another rebel Georgian region, Abkhazia, as independent, a move that has so far been followed by only Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Thousands of Russian troops and border guards are now stationed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow says are needed to protect the regions against Georgian aggression but which Tbilisi calls an illegal occupation.

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