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S. Ossetia Separatists Release Georgian Peacekeepers - 2004-07-09

Separatist forces in the breakaway South Ossetia region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia have released about 35 peacekeepers who were held overnight in an incident that created outrage in the rest of Georgia. The case has also further strained relations with neighboring Russia.

The peacekeepers were turned over to Georgian officials a day after they were shown on television being forced to kneel in a sort of humiliation harshly criticized by the Georgian leadership.

A spokeswoman for the breakaway South Ossetian government said three other peacekeepers remained in custody for what she described as "grave crimes."

This issue is likely to worsen the battle of wills between the Ossetians and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who has vowed to bring the rebel area back under central control.

The peacekeepers are part of a multinational force that monitors an agreement that ended a 1992 conflict in which South Ossetia broke away from Georgia.

The region has had de facto independence since then, receiving support from Russia to the point where the Russian ruble is its currency of choice.

Mr. Saakashvili also accuses Russia of providing military support to the area. On Tuesday, Georgian police stopped a convoy of trucks carrying Russian missiles and servicemen as it tried to enter South Ossetia.

This brought a strong protest from Moscow, where officials said the military equipment was being sent to Russian peacekeepers, who are also part of the monitoring force.

Mr. Saakashvili swept to power in the so-called "Rose Revolution" last November that ousted Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Earlier this year Mr. Saakashvili successfully forced another strongman from power in Adjaria, another independence-minded region on the Black Sea.

The 36-year-old, U.S.-educated Georgian president has now turned his attention to South Ossetia and the larger region of Abkhazia, which also broke away a decade ago after a brief but bloody war.

Mr. Saakashvili has vowed to reunite Georgia through peaceful means. But the leaders of the two separatist regions say they won't give up without a fight.