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Russian Peacekeepers Abducted in Georgia's Abkhazia Region - 2002-03-19

Four Russian peacekeepers have been abducted in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

The three Russian officers and one soldier were patrolling the border region between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia when they were taken captive Monday evening.

There were conflicting reports from Russian news agencies on Tuesday about whether the soldiers had already been released.

Georgian officials have said they are doing all that they can to find the Russian soldiers. Speaking to reporters at a conference in Brussels, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he believes the Russian peacekeepers will be released soon.

But officials from the breakaway region of Abkhazia say the blame for the abductions lies with Georgia.

The chief of security in Abkhazia, Zurab Agumava, told the Associated Press news agency that the Russians were taken by a Georgian guerrilla group called the Forest Brothers. The Forest Brothers want to bring Abkhazia back under Georgian control.

The Abkhaz official said the Forest Brothers were retaliating after Abkhaz officials arrested two Georgians last week.

The Abkhaz government has repeatedly accused Georgian guerrillas of kidnapping people from the Abkhaz side of the border. But many in Georgia say it is actually the Russian troops who are guilty of harassing and killing people living near the border region. The Georgian government says the Russian peacekeepers are aiding the separatist Abkhaz government.

About 1,500 Russian peacekeepers patrol the border region separating the rest of Georgia from the territory of Abkhazia.

The troops arrived in 1994 as part of a peace agreement between Abkhazia and Georgia. According to Abkhaz officials, almost 100 Russian soldiers have been killed since the mission began eight years ago.

Abkhazia claimed independence after it drove out Georgian troops in 1993. But their independence is in name only, since the international community considers Abkhazia to be part of Georgia.

Peace talks between the two sides are almost non-existent since Abkhazia refuses to consider returning to Georgian control and Georgia rejects the idea of an independent Abkhazia