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Russia warns Georgia detaining peacekeepers may end in bloodshed

RIA Novosti

19/06/2008 17:36 (Adds Georgian official's reaction in paras 6, 7)

MOSCOW, June 19 (RIA Novosti) - A Russian General Staff official warned Georgia on Thursday that the patience of Russian peacekeepers was running out and any further detentions could end in bloodshed.

The warning comes amid the detention Tuesday night of four Russian peacekeepers by Georgian police on suspicion of smuggling weapons out of the breakaway region of Abkhazia. The peacekeepers have since been released.

"The consequences might be extremely serious, such as bloodshed," said Lt. Gen. Alexander Burutin, a deputy head of the General Staff, adding that there were no guarantees that Russian troops stationed in the region would continue to be so tolerant.

The peacekeepers were detained by Georgian police supervised by a deputy head of a crime police unit in the Zugdidi district, western Georgia. Burutin said the detention was unwarranted and called it "a bandit attack."

"Under the circumstances, the Russian peacekeepers had the complete right to use their weapons and ammunition, to defend themselves and their equipment," the official said. He said the right was contained in the mandate of the Collective Peacekeeping Forces, stationed in the region since a bloody Georgian-Abkhazian conflict in the early 1990s.

But Georgia's deputy foreign minister said peacekeepers' operations were restricted by their mandate. "Russia must realize Georgia's consent is needed for moving through its territory," Grigol Vashadze said.

"As to threatening bloodshed, Georgia permanently hears this from its northern neighbor. The only thing I can say is that we are not afraid, so they [the Russians] can try if they want," he said.

Georgia's Interior Ministry claimed that the peacekeepers were transporting 35 crates of munitions, including guided missiles and anti-tank mines. Georgia refused to return the seized arms until an investigation has been completed.

"A criminal probe has been launched and we cannot return the confiscated equipment to Russia before the investigation is completed," said Shota Utiashvili, the head of the ministry's analytical department.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman earlier said the detention violated all existing norms. "This was done in violation of all regulations, in particular, the peacekeeping force mandate," Andrei Nesterenko said.

He also said that moves like this were aimed at worsening bilateral relations and that a host of recent incidents in Abkhazia had been staged by Tbilisi to this purpose.

Georgia broadcast film footage of the Russian peacekeepers being dragged from their truck and disarmed by people dressed in civilian clothes.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been strained in recent months ever since Russia stepped up support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway Georgian republic, and sent more troops into the region. Tbilisi has accused the Kremlin of plans to annex the territories. Georgia's bid to join NATO has also caused tension.

Georgia's brief detention of Russian officers on spying charges in 2006 resulted in a postal and transport blockade that was only lifted earlier this year.

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