Georgian authorities have released four South Ossetian prisoners and in exchange the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides handed over to Tbilisi twelve long-term prisoners as part of a rare tripartite deal hailed by the sides as an “important humanitarian act” and result of “pragmatic cooperation”.
The prisoner swap took place on the Abkhaz administrative border late on Thursday afternoon in presence of Georgian State Minister for Reconciliation Paata Zakareishvili, as well as foreign ministers from breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Viacheslav Chirikba and Kazbulat Tskhovrebov, respectively.
Three out of four men, released by Tbilisi, were arrested in 2005 in connection to explosion outside police station in the town of Gori on February 1, 2005, which killed three Georgian policemen and injured more than two dozen of people; they were serving life sentences.
In exchange, the South Ossetian side released four men, who were serving lengthy prison terms in the breakaway region, and handed them over to the Georgian side at the administrative border of breakaway South Ossetia. Also on March 10 the South Ossetian side released the fifth man, who was arrested last autumn on “illegal crossing of the border“.
In parallel, as part of the deal the Abkhaz side handed over to the Georgian side eight persons, including one woman, who were serving lengthy prison terms in Abkhazia on various charges, among them, “espionage”. This exchange of prisoners, also involving four Ossetians, took place at the Abkhaz administrative border.
Both the Georgian and South Ossetian senior officials, present at the prisoner swap, were praising Abkhaz side’s role in making the deal possible.
“I am very grateful to the South Ossetian side, and especially to the Abkhaz side for the cooperation,” Georgian State Minister for Reconciliation, Paata Zakareishvili, said in Russian while speaking with the Abkhaz journalists in presence of the foreign ministers from the two breakaway regions.
“I would say that Abkhaz side has worked a lot, especially Mr [Raul] Khajimba [de facto president of Abkhazia] and I want to highlight his principled approach; it is very important in the context of the peace process. We want to start new stage in Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian relations and humanitarian issues always are on top. I am very satisfied with this process. It has been ongoing for a long time, for months, but all the partners, all the sides were working honestly and if it is possible to work honestly over such a difficult issue, then the same will be possible over other issues as well,” Zakareishvili said.
In separate remarks to the Georgian journalists, Zakareishvili said: “I sincerely want to thank especially the Abkhaz side because they acted in a very dignified manner. They released [Georgian] illegal prisoners, who were serving lengthy terms, without requesting anyone in exchange and we handed over four prisoners to the Tskhinvali side.”
Breakaway South Ossetia’s foreign minister thanked the Abkhaz leader for “extremely constructive approach” and for responding positively to a request of the South Ossetian leader Leonid Tibilov to pardon and release prisoners, which made the deal possible with the Georgian side. In a written statement breakaway South Ossetia’s foreign ministry said that the release of prisoners was made possible as a result of “close cooperation with the Abkhaz side and good will, demonstrated by all the sides involved.”
Breakaway Abkhazia’s foreign minister Viacheslav Chirikba welcomed the prisoner swap as “an excellent example of pragmatic cooperation from all the parties.”
“This is also thanks to very delicate negotiations in Geneva from where this process started,” Chirikba added.
He was referring to the Geneva International Discussions, which were launched after the August 2008 war and which involve participants from Georgia, Russia, the United States, as well as from the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides. Talks are co-chaired by EU, OSCE and UN envoys.
South Ossetian representatives were repeatedly raising the issue of release of several persons, serving prison terms in Georgian jails, in frames of the Geneva talks, as well as in their contacts with the co-chairs of Geneva talks.
But the final agreement on prisoner swap was reached through direct contacts between the three sides, according to the Georgian officials and other sources familiar with the matter.
In a joint statement later on the same day, co-chairs of the Geneva International Discussions welcomed “greatly” the simultaneous release of detainees from Tbilisi, Sokhumi and Tskhinvali as a “significant humanitarian act.”
“Coming to a mutual understanding about the release of detainees opens good prospects for further engagement,” EU, OSCE and UN envoys said in their joint statement.
“The Co-Chairs praise this gesture and call upon all participants in the Geneva International Discussions to continue applying similar pragmatic and result-oriented approach to all issues on the agenda,” reads the statement.
Among the issues regularly raised during the Geneva talks, 35th round of which is scheduled for March 22-23, are non-use of force and international security arrangement, as well as return of refugees, on which the participants are failing to make progress for a long time already.
British ambassador to Georgia Alexandra Hall Hall also welcomed the release of prisoners and said in a statement that this “humanitarian gesture” demonstrates “the willingness of all sides to address difficult, unresolved issues that stem from conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s.”
“We support these types of measures and would encourage all the sides to continue this constructive atmosphere, and look to find ways to resolve other outstanding issues,” she said.
Original deal on prisoner exchange apparently involved release of 9 persons by the Abkhaz side. But one of them, who along with eight others was escorted at the handover venue by the Abkhaz side, told the Georgian State Minister for Reconciliation that he was willing to stay in Abkhazia otherwise he would never be able to return. In a video footage, carried by the Tbilisi-based Imedi TV, Zakareishvili is heard telling the man to talk and discuss the issue privately. The State Ministry for Reconciliation said later that the man, who is from Kodori gorge in Abkhazia, which before the August 2008 war was under Tbilisi’s control, decided to stay.