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US Welcomes Georgia's Return of Russian Officers

The United States has welcomed the return home of four Russian officers held in Georgia on spy charges, and says it hopes the move leads to a winding down of political tensions between the two neighbors. President Bush discussed the issue by telephone Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Officials here say they are making no judgment about the merit of the spy charges against the Russians that had leveled by Georgia. But they're expressing relief over their release, and hoping the action will help defuse growing tensions in the south Caucuses.

The arrest of the Russian officers last week exacerbated Georgian-Russian tensions already inflamed by the dispute between the two countries over the status of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The crisis prompted weekend telephone appeals for restraint by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and it figured in a telephone conversation Monday between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a written statement, the State Department welcomed the release of the Russian officers and paid tribute to mediation efforts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, and its current chairman, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht.

In a talk with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried said he hoped the release will prompt Russia to end border restrictions imposed on Georgia in recent days and open the way to renewed efforts to resolve the so-called "frozen conflicts" over South Ossetia and Abkhazia:

"We hope that the return to Russia of the four [arrested Russians] will give everyone an opportunity to stand back and look at ways to make progress. Now look, emotions are high," said Fried. "But there is a way and the international community certainly supports peaceful, negotiated solutions to the frozen conflicts consistent with Georgia's territorial integrity. We have long encouraged Georgia to work with Russia, because that's important to Georgia's future. And we will continue to do what we can."

Fried welcomed the fact that despite the tensions, Russia is adhering to a 1999 agreement under which it is to close, by 2008, the bases in Georgia it has maintained since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The nominal Russian peacekeeping presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which began in 1994, has also been a major irritant between the two countries, with Georgia accusing the troops of actively supporting Russian separatists.

Assistant Secretary Fried said the situations in the two areas are unstable and threaten to deteriorate into violence at any time.

He said the United States stands ready to increase efforts with the Moscow and Tbilisi governments and other concerned parties to try to resolve the issues, and has proposed specific ideas including expansion of OSCE monitoring and curbing illegal trafficking of goods in the disputed areas.