South Ossetia frees detained OSCE observers

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia briefly detained two international observers on Tuesday in the latest tension to hit the turbulent Caucasus republic less than a year after war between Moscow and Tbilisi.

The detentions follow complaints from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week that planned NATO military exercises in Georgia next month are dangerous “muscle flexing.”

The pro-Russian South Ossetian authorities detained the observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) after saying they illegally crossed the Georgian-South Ossetian border, separatist spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva said by telephone on Tuesday.

The monitors were later released, a spokeswoman for the OSCE mission in Georgia said.

“I confirm it’s over,” the OSCE spokeswoman said. “The monitors are now returning to base.”

Military observers from the Vienna-based OSCE have been based in Georgia since 1992 and have been conducting patrols in South Ossetia.

But since Russia’s brief war with Georgia last year, the separatist authorities have denied the observers access to their region and Moscow has blocked the renewal of the mission’s mandate in Georgia.

“The acts by the OSCE are provocative,” Interfax quoted the rebel region’s leader Eduard Kokoity as saying.

An OSCE diplomat who asked not to be identified told Reuters the boundary was disputed in some areas.

“Kokoity has alleged they illegally crossed the boundary. We are trying to establish what actually happened. There are 20 military monitors in all, patrolling 4 to 5 times a day along the boundary, so they know what they are doing,” he said.

In February, two OSCE monitors were briefly detained, then released after venturing into South Ossetia, which borders Russia to the north and Georgia to its south.

Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Matt Robinson; additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna