- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

TBILISI, Georgia — Russia warned yesterday it could reconsider plans to withdraw its troops from Georgia by 2008 because of the arrest of four Russian officers accused of spying, while Georgia voiced concern about Russian troop movements near its border.

As tensions worsened between Moscow and the former Soviet republic, Georgia charged the Russian military officers with espionage while Russian planes evacuated dozens of diplomats and their relatives from the country.

Georgian police also maintained their positions around the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi, hoping to detain another officer accused of spying. Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko said Moscow would not hand him over.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been increasingly tense since President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power after Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and pledged to move the country out of Russia’s orbit and more toward the West.

The latest conflict arose after five Russian military officers were detained Wednesday on charges of spying. The fifth officer was released yesterday.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld voiced concern about the growing tensions to his counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was in Slovenia to hold talks with NATO ministers.

“The thread of those discussions clearly was for there to be calm, and for those tensions to be eased down in a peaceful way,” Mr. Rumsfeld said at a briefing.

The commander of Russian military forces in Georgia, Gen. Andrei Popov, said the detentions cast doubt over a plan for Russia to withdraw its troops from two bases it maintains in Georgia, the Interfax news agency reported. One is to be closed in 2007, the other a year later.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said Russia had redeployed troops closer to its border and that Russia’s Black Sea fleet was expected to start maneuvers in the next few days.

“I would advise our colleagues to stop saber-rattling,” Mr. Merabishvili told reporters. “This is unacceptable for a democratic country and we don’t understand that.”

Russia refused to comment on Mr. Merabishvili’s charges of troop movements.

Tbilisi courts ruled yesterday to keep the four Russian officers in custody for another two months, prosecutor Anzor Khvadagiani said. The courts also extended the arrest of 10 Georgian citizens accused of involvement in the Russian spy ring.

Moscow complained to the United Nations about the detentions Thursday and said it was recalling its ambassador and evacuating its diplomats. Mr. Ivanov denounced Georgia as a “bandit” state.

Mr. Ivanov said the arrests were aimed at pushing Russian troops out of Georgia so the government could seize control of pro-Russian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abhkazia by force.

He also accused unidentified newer NATO members of illegally supplying Georgia with Soviet-made weapons.

“It is absolutely clear to us that Georgia has chosen the military path, the forceful path, for resolving the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” he said after the NATO meeting.

Tbilisi has accused Moscow of backing separatists in the breakaway provinces and making efforts to undermine Mr. Saakashvili’s government — charges Russia has denied.

The provinces have maintained de-facto independence, without international recognition, since breaking away after bloody wars in the early 1990s.

Tensions in the breakaway provinces have been heightened since the detentions.

An official in South Ossetia asserted yesterday that masked Georgian military or security officers shot out the tires of a car carrying four Russian peacekeepers, a woman and a child the previous night, then ordered the men out and beat them.

Irina Gagloyeva, spokeswoman for the South Ossetian government, said one of the peacekeepers had a fractured skull, and Mr. Ivanov said they were “brutally beaten.”

Paata Bedianashvili, spokes- man for Georgian peacekeepers in the region, called the charges “rubbish.”

He said Georgian police stopped a car containing Russian peacekeepers but merely checked their documents and let them go.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has advised all Russians against traveling to Georgia, and the embassy in Tbilisi stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens.

Two Russian Emergency Situations Ministry planes evacuated 84 diplomats and their relatives from Georgia yesterday, said ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov.

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