Georgian authorities on Wednesday released four Russian peacekeepers who were detained on charges of carrying unauthorized weapons to a buffer zone near the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Georgian officials said they would keep the load of anti-tank missiles they seized from the Russians late Tuesday. Local Gov. Zaza Gorozia said the Russians were not authorized to take the weapons into the area.
Abkhazia has been a source of tension for Russia and Georgia for more than a decade, and the seizure of the weapons only served to escalate the spat and prompted the presidents of the two countries to talk by telephone Wednesday.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the incidents “unacceptable,” according to the Kremlin.
Russian military official Col. Igor Konashenkov said the detention of peacekeepers and their cargo violated the existing agreements on peacekeepers' deployment in the region.
TV shows soldiers dragged out
In footage broadcast by Georgian and Russian TV, burly men in plainclothes descended on a Russian military truck, dragging young soldiers out, taking their weapons and putting one of the Russians face down on the ground. The Russians looked stunned and did not seem to offer any resistance.
Konashenkov denounced the detention as a “provocation aimed at discrediting the Russian peacekeepers.”
“It will foment tensions in the region, hurt mutual trust and undermine the peace process,” he said in televised remarks.
Georgian checkpoint authorities held the peacekeepers at gunpoint for 20 minutes — until police and a Georgian television crew arrived — before removing them from the truck, Konashenkov said.
Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili spoke by phone Wednesday, in which Medvedev called the incident unacceptable “acts of provocation,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
Saakashvili promised to look into the matter, the statement said.
Relations between Russia and Georgia have been tense since Saakashvili came to power in 2004. Saakashvili’s push for Georgia’s integration into the West and NATO membership has vexed Moscow, which sees strategically placed, ex-Soviet neighbor as part of its sphere of influence.
Georgia, in turn, has long accused Russia of aiming to annex Abkhazia and another separatist region, South Ossetia. Both have been outside the Georgian government’s control since the end of separatist wars in the mid-1990s.
Russia does not formally recognize either region’s separatist government, but it maintains close contacts with them and has granted passports to most of the regions’ residents. Russia also has peacekeeping forces in both regions; Georgia accuses the forces of supporting the separatists.
Moscow recently sent in additional forces, a move Saakashvili denounced as “aggression.”
Georgia has said it suspects Russia of using peacekeeping troops as a cover to bring artillery and other heavy weapons into Abkhazia, and has flown pilotless reconnaissance drones over the breakaway region.
Georgia accused Russia of shooting down a spy drone last month, which Russia denied. U.N. observers studied video footage and concluded that a Russian fighter did shoot down the drone.