Russia and Georgia on Tuesday exchanged prisoners captured during their brief war, a move that may reduce tensions and, Georgia hopes, hasten the promised withdrawal of Russian troops.
Georgian Security Council head Alexander Lomaia said the swap removes any pretext for Russians to hold positions in Igoeti. The village is the closest that Russian forces have advanced to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, about 30 miles away.
Yet as NATO foreign ministers prepared to hold an emergency meeting in Brussels over a unified response to Russia’s invasion of its tiny neighbor, there still was no sign of the Russian troop pullout from Georgia that was supposed to have begun Monday.
A Russian defense official indicated Tuesday that a complete withdrawal from Georgia proper was not imminent.
“Rear units, as well as second- and third-echelon units are being pulled back first. The vanguard units will be pulled back at the final stage,” Col. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for Russia’s land forces, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Tuesday’s prisoner exchange, witnessed by Lomaia and Russian Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Borisov, included 15 Georgians and five Russians, Lomaia said.
“It went smoothly, he said.
The swap began when two Russian military helicopters landed in Igoeti. Two people in stretchers were unloaded and handed over to Georgian officials.
Georgian ambulances later brought two people to the scene and took them to the Russian helicopters. One was on a gurney.
Russian troops last week drove Georgian forces out of the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia, where Georgia on Aug. 7 launched a heavy artillery barrage.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed NATO allies to step up political and military ties with Georgia and to consider scaling back high-level meetings and military cooperation with Russia if its military does not abandon positions across Georgia.
Rice said the U.S. supports a permanent NATO-Georgia Commission that would solidify ties between the western alliance and the Black Sea nation, and supports increasing training for the Georgian military.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said on arrival that the allies must “ensure Russia does not learn the wrong lessons from the events of the last two weeks. Force cannot be the basis for the demarcation of new lines around Russia.”
NATO was also expected to discuss support to efforts to send in an international monitoring mission being set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security grouping that includes Russia, Georgia and western nations.
Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, whose country holds the OSCE presidency, said Russia had agreed on a plan that would send 20 unarmed military observers there, besides nine already in place. The total could later go up to 100, the OSCE says.
The United Nations has estimated the fighting displaced more than 158,000 people. U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres arrived in Tbilisi on Tuesday to meet with government representatives to discuss the plight of tens of thousands of South Ossetians uprooted by Georgia’s conflict with Russia.
Guterres will then travel to Moscow to meet with Russian officials, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Andrej Mahecic said.
Mahecic told journalists in Geneva that UNHCR, like other aid agencies, has not been able to reach the civilian population in much of South Ossetia because of security issues there. The area is now controlled by Russia.
“We have seen media reports indicating that people are being shot at while trying to leave the area,” he said.
With Western leaders anxiously watching for a withdrawal and puzzling over how to punish Moscow for what they called a disproportionate reaction to the Georgian offensive, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev defended Russia’s actions and warned against any aggression.
“Anyone who tries anything like that will face a crushing response,” he said Monday.
On the ground, the lack of troop movement raised questions about whether Russia was fulfilling its part of the cease-fire meant to end the short but intense war that has stoked tension between a resurgent Russia and the West.
Russian troops restricted access to Gori, where most shops were shut and people milled around on the central square with its statue of the Soviet dictator and native son Josef Stalin.
“The city is a cold place now. People are fearful,” said Nona Khizanishvili, 44, who fled Gori a week ago for an outlying village and returned Monday, trying to reach her son in Tbilisi.
Four Russian armored personnel carriers, each carrying about 15 men, rolled Monday afternoon from Gori to Igoeti, a crossroads town even closer to Tbilisi.
Georgia’s Rustavi-2 television showed footage of a Russian armored vehicle smashing through a group of Georgian police cars barricading the road to Gori on Monday. One of the cars was dragged along the street by the Russian armor. Georgian police stood by without raising their guns.
Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Russian forces had blown up the runway at a base in the western city of Senaki on Monday. There was no confirmation from Russian military officials.
Russian troops and tanks have controlled a wide swath of Georgia for days, including the country’s main east-west highway where Gori sits. The Russian presence essentially cuts the small Caucasus Mountains nation in half.
It also threatens pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili’s efforts to keep his country from falling apart after the war bolstered the chances of South Ossetia and another Russian-backed separatist region, Abkhazia, of remaining free of Georgian rule.
According to the European Union-brokered peace plan signed by both Medvedev and Saakashvili, both sides are to pull forces back to the positions they held before the fighting broke out.
But the deputy chief of the Russian general staff, Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said the Russian troops were pulling back to South Ossetia and a security zone defined by a 1999 agreement of the “joint control commission.” The commission had been nominally in charge of South Ossetia’s status since it split from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Georgian and Russian officials could not immediately clarify the dimensions of the security zone, but Georgian government documents suggest it extends more than four miles into Georgia beyond the administrative border of South Ossetia.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy — who brokered the cease-fire deal — has said the operations it permits by Russian peacekeepers until an international mechanism is in place cannot be conducted beyond the “immediate proximity of South Ossetia.” AP