July 8, 2008 / 5:07 PM / 11 years ago

Georgia plans operation to free detained soldiers

(Recasts, adds details, quotes)

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI, July 8 (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told police on Tuesday to prepare an operation to free four soldiers detained by Russian-backed separatists in Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region.

Separatists in South Ossetia detained four Georgian soldiers on Monday, raising tension a day before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Tbilisi.

"Our police should start immediate preparations for their release," Saakashvili told a special session of Georgia’s security council.

"I think we should demand their immediate release and I am issuing an order to the interior ministry: if they are not freed ... our police should release them," he said.

Saakashvili did not give a deadline.

South Ossetia, and Georgia’s second breakaway region of Abkhazia, are a regular source of friction between the pro-Western government in Tbilisi and neighbouring Russia, which supports the separatists.

Georgian officials said its servicemen had been kidnapped, while the separatist administration said the Georgian troops were scouting targets for a possible artillery attack.

Georgian media reported that the four had already been released. Asked to comment on the report, Mamuka Kurashvili, commander of the Georgian peacekeeping battalion in South Ossetia, said: "I am not confirming it yet."

The separatists said the servicemen were detained as they entered the region and they would be charged with illegally crossing into South Ossetia and resisting arrest.

"Questioning (of the soldiers) has shown that they were a group which was identifying targets for artillery fire," separatist Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzayev said in a statement.

Two people were killed in South Ossetia last week in one of the most intense exchanges of fire in months between the separatists and Georgian forces.

In Abkhazia, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, four people were killed when a bomb exploded in a cafe on Sunday.

Rice is to arrive in Tbilisi on Wednesday. Speaking in the Czech Republic on Tuesday she said Russian behaviour towards Georgia had aggravated tension and urged Moscow and Tbilisi to avoid provocative action. (Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Christian Lowe; Editing by Mariam Karouny)

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