Georgia, Russia Exchange Prisoners
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Russia and Georgia exchanged prisoners today, the first signs of efforts to reduce the tension between the two sides after their brief war. Georgians and their Western supporters are still waiting for the promised Russian withdrawal from occupied areas of Georgia.
Russia insists that withdrawal is already underway, but there are few signs that frontline combat units are moving. NPR's Ivan Watson is at a Russian checkpoint just outside the Georgian town of Gori and joins us now. And, Ivan, what do you know about this prisoner exchange today?
IVAN WATSON: Well, eyewitnesses say two Russian helicopters landed at the easternmost Russian military checkpoint about 20 miles west of the Georgian capital, and they delivered at least 13 Georgian prisoners. Some of them were on stretchers. They were clearly wounded soldiers. The Georgians, in turn, released about five Russians, some of whom were also on stretchers.
MONTAGNE: Now, the Russians are insisting that their military unit - second and third tier, as they're understood to be - are withdrawing. Have you seen any signs of that?
WATSON: No. And, Renee, that's the sound of a Russian military supply truck rolling past. We have seen large numbers of Russian military vehicles operating in this area. The Russians have established a number of checkpoints on the highway running east from Gori with armored personnel carriers dug into the side of hills and Russians soldiers searching passing cars, blocking through traffic to the west of the country.
In western Georgia yesterday, where I did a tour with Georgian government officials after taking a helicopter ride across the country because the Russians have blocked vehicular traffic across the country, there I saw Russian artillery battery which had been established in an open field. There were no signs that the soldiers were going to pull out those cannons anytime soon.
And the Russians were continuing to occupy a number of Georgian military bases and police installations. And they were systematically destroying equipment and ammunition material there. We were hearing periodic controlled explosions as they blew up some of those installations.
MONTAGNE: Why are the Russians taking so long? It sounds like they have what they consider to be important business to do there in Georgia before they leave, but what's going on?
WATSON: Well, they've made very contradictory statements. A number of times, Russian field commanders on the ground here in Gori and even the president, Dmitry Medvedev, have said we are going to withdraw, and then we have seen no sign of that whatsoever.
Now it's important to point out there is a vague clause on one of the articles of the six-point cease-fire agreement, which France brokered between Russia and Georgia. And that says that the Russians can perform, quote, "extra security measures." So, the Russians could argue that that's what they're doing, even though a number of Western leaders have demanded that the Russians withdraw their troops immediately. But, of course, we've seen no sign of that whatsoever.
MONTAGNE: Is there fear there in Georgia that the Russians will move forward rather than withdraw?
WATSON: There are fears. The Russian troops continue to move deeper in these little patrols. Yesterday a Russian armored personnel carrier rolled over a Georgian police car that refused to get out of the way. And some would argue that these are provocative little movements to scare the Georgians, and the Georgians say they're taking extreme care not to be provoked, not to fire back, because that would give the Russians justification for going even further, for taking even harsher measures against the Georgian government.
MONTAGNE: Ivan, thanks very much. NPR's Ivan Watson just outside the Georgian town of Gori.