4 Georgian Soldiers Held in S. Ossetia

Moscow-backed separatists in Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region detained four Georgian soldiers Tuesday, raising tension a day before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Tbilisi.

South Ossetia, and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia, are a regular source of friction between the pro-Western government in Tbilisi and neighboring Russia.

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

"Four Georgian officers from a logistics battalion have been kidnapped in South Ossetia today by local fighters," Mamuka Kurashvili, commander of the Georgian peacekeeping battalion in South Ossetia, told journalists Tuesday.

"They are still being held there illegally. ... We won't allow these illegal groups to continue their criminal actions and will do our best to release them as soon as possible," Kurashvili said.

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

"Questioning [of the soldiers] has shown that they were a group that 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. Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh said Tuesday that the breakaway republic, which is not internationally recognized, had rejected a U.S. proposal to deploy an international police force there.

"We are not going to listen to any recommendations from the State Department, which always has a unilaterally pro-Georgian position," Bagapsh told journalists.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that Abkhazia "urgently" needs an international police presence in the areas of the recent bombings.

Speaking Tuesday as she landed in Prague to sign an agreement on a missile defense system before traveling to Tbilisi later this week, Rice said, "Frankly, some of the things that Russia did over the last couple of months added to tensions in the region."

U.S. officials have been dismayed by a series of steps that Moscow has taken towards the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.

"Georgia is an independent state," Rice said. "It has to be treated like one. We have said that both Georgia and Russia need to avoid provocative behavior."

Reuters, AP