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Teenage Georgian prisoners: smugglers or political pawns?

Four Georgian teenagers caught at the South Ossetian border with explosives and grenades have made it to the center of a growing international row, and now could be exchanged in return for South Ossetian detainees.

If an agreement is not made, the teenagers could be held for a further two months.

Tbilisi, however, is demanding the immediate release of the youngsters, saying children must not be used as political pawns.

When the teens were detained, they showed the South Ossetian police where they had hidden their bag, in which, next to loaves of bread and sausages, was something more sinister: trotil and ammonal blocks, Bickford fuse and offensive hand grenades with separated detonators.

The boys, aged between 14 and 17, have been held since November 4 by South Ossetia.

They are accused of crossing the border with Georgia illegally while armed with grenades and explosives.

The youngest, 14-year-old Georgy, says this is not his first trip to South Ossetia and he was simply visiting relatives.

” I don’t know their family name, they live on Kutuzov street,” states detainee Georgy Romelashvili. “I know their names only – Goga and Anzor.”

The eldest, 17-year-old Levan, says he was attempting to visit his home, and his friends were coming with him.

“I wanted to see my house in the village of Khevit,” says detainee Levan Khmisuashvili.

Georgia has been angered by the arrests, accusing authorities in South Ossetia of kidnapping, and Russia of being involved, but its allegations of ill treatment have been dismissed.

“I've talked to the boys. They are healthy and are being looked after,” assures Vitaly Gassiev, South Ossetia’s deputy Interior Minister.

The European Union has also expressed deep concern, and has called on the South Ossetian side to release all four immediately.

Prosecutor’s in South Ossetia say they will continue to investigate whether the frontier was crossed illegally, and if it was part of an attempt to smuggle arms.

”It's intolerable. People have allowed the youngsters to cross into South Ossetia to inflame the situation in the security zone,” bemoans Vitaly Gassiev.

Border tensions show no sign of abating since Georgia launched a war against South Ossetia in the summer of 2008. Russia stepped in to restore peace, and the result was South Ossetia’s declaration of independence.

There was a similar incident in October, when 16 Georgians were detained close to South Ossetia. They were cutting wood and insisted they had no idea they had crossed the border. All were released the same day and sent back to Georgia.

Now the question is who these Georgian teenagers with explosives really are. There are many theories on that, but most likely, local officials claim, Tbilisi is using the boys as cannon fodder for anti-Russian propaganda ahead of the Geneva talks, and in the most optimistic scenario they might be swapped for Ossetians imprisoned in Georgia. Their fate is now in the hands of the South Ossetian authorities.