Georgia, Russia Exchange Prisoners

A prisoner exchange between Georgia and Russia is a sign of both nations' efforts to reduce tension. But Georgia and its Western allies are waiting for Russia to fulfill its promise to withdraw Russian troops from areas of Georgia. Russia has insisted the withdrawal is under way.

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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.

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Despite Cease-Fire, Russia Slowly Punishes Georgia

Interactive Feature: Russia, Georgia Clash
Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR
Crews try to repair a train bridge in Georgia that was mysteriously blown up on Saturday. i i

hide captionCrews try to repair a train bridge in Georgia that was mysteriously blown up on Saturday. The bridge was a vital link from Tbilisi to the western half of the country. Moscow denied Georgian government accusations that it was behind the attack.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Crews try to repair a train bridge in Georgia that was mysteriously blown up on Saturday.

Crews try to repair a train bridge in Georgia that was mysteriously blown up on Saturday. The bridge was a vital link from Tbilisi to the western half of the country. Moscow denied Georgian government accusations that it was behind the attack.

Ivan Watson/NPR

Russian troops still have not made any significant move to withdraw from the Georgian territory, three days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a French-brokered cease-fire agreement with Georgia.

A growing number of Western leaders are demanding that Russian soldiers abandon Georgia immediately.

But Russia's slow punishment of its disobedient little neighbor continued Monday.

Bridge Mysteriously Bombed

Russian troops blockaded Georgia's main east-west highway. Meanwhile, Georgian repair crews were hard at work trying to fix a railroad bridge, which was mysteriously bombed on Saturday.

Moscow denied responsibility for the blast, which blew out a 20-foot span of the concrete and steel bridge.

With this last remaining land link between Tbilisi and the western half of the country severed, the only way to travel from the Georgian capital to western Georgia is by military helicopter. On a recent flight, the chopper skimmed low, sometimes less than 20 feet, over trees and haystacks and through deep mountain gorges.

At the entrance to the western town of Zugdidi, someone had spray-painted "Russians go home" next to a swastika.

Russian troops have occupied several Georgian military installations and police barracks, and they have set up a battery of artillery in an open field outside town.

An elderly Georgian man named Boris walked past several Russian soldiers who were relaxing in the shade.

"We need to make sure not a single hair on their heads gets hurt," Boris said. "If even one Russian soldier dies, then Russia will punish us even more."

A Defenseless Georgian Base

In the nearby town of Senaki, Russian troops have occupied what had been one of the biggest Georgian military bases in the area.

An American-trained Georgian army officer named Lt. Ramazi Aphkhadze stood outside the main gate of what had been his barracks, dressed in civilian clothes.

When the war with Russia broke out, Aphkhadze said the base was practically defenseless.

"All of our guys was in South Ossetia; we was only about 200 soldiers here," he said. "And we could not fight with them."

On Aug. 8, the Georgian army tried — and failed — to capture the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia during a surprise offensive.

Russia: Georgia Cannot Be Forgiven

Russia's president said Monday that Georgia can not be forgiven or left unpunished for this attack.

At the Senaki army base, Aphkhadze could do little more then watch as Russian soldiers destroyed his army's equipment.

Russian troops have also been hard at work destroying the Georgian coast guard base in the Black Sea port of Poti. The radio antennas of several sunken coast guard vessels stick out of the water. A nearby administrative building was completely ransacked. Insulation was even ripped out of the ceilings.

The nearby civilian port was also hit during the fighting.

"The port was bombed. And several people died, as you know. And even one of my friends, he was injured," said Samira Kuznetsova, an ethnic Russian and Georgian citizen.

Kuznetsova published a blog with her firsthand account of the Russian bombing.

"And for me it's terrible, actually, because I have a lot of friends in Russia, and they don't believe me," she said. "They don't understand what is happening. They say that this is fake — it couldn't be true. That's why there are a lot of problems. It will be a lot of problems between two nations in the future."

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