Georgia frees four Russian soldiers after arms-smuggling arrest

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Moscow, Jun 18 (UNI) Georgian police released today four Russian peacekeepers who were arrested last night on charges of smuggling arms out of its breakaway republic of Abkhazia.

''The four detainees were freed after nine hours of questioning,'' police said, adding ''They were given back their automatic weapons and passports. The military cargo was confiscated.'' Georgian police said.

Georgia's Interior Ministry had said yesterday that the peacekeepers were transporting 35 crates of munitions, including guided missiles and anti-tank mines.

''This type of arms are not allowed in the conflict zone.

This is a violation of existing agreements,'' police was quoted as saying today by Ria Novosti.

''The Russians made an attempt to create a kind of military base at their headquarters in the Georgian district of Zugdidi, but we will not allow this to happen,'' a senior Defence Ministry official Mamuka Kurashvili said in Tbilisi.

Georgia's Interior Ministry said police were continuing the investigation.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been strained further in recent months, since Russia stepped up support for Abkhazia and sent more troops into the region. Tbilisi has accused the Kremlin of plans to annex the territory.

Russia's Defence Ministry had said yesterday, ''The arrest was in violation of all regulatory norms in the buffer zone.'' Russia has reacted angrily to arrests of its military personnel in the former Soviet republic. Georgia's brief detention of Russian officers on spying charges in 2006 resulted in a postal and transport blockade that was only lifted this year.

Moscow has denied Tbilisi's accusations of seeking to annex Abkhazia and condemned Georgia's policy toward the restive region as conducive to new bloodshed.

Georgia, under the West-leaning President Mikheil Saakashvili, has sought to join the NATO. These plans have led to tensions in the relations with Russia.

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