- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

MOSCOW — Russia recalled its ambassador to Georgia and waged a vitriolic verbal attack on the Caucasus nation yesterday after the arrests of five Russian officers in the Georgian capital on espionage charges, marking a serious escalation in tensions between the two former members of the Soviet Union.

Georgian security forces continued to surround Russia’s military headquarters in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi last night.

Moscow called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council and asked for the U.N. body to rebuke Georgia for “dangerous and unacceptable” actions it said could endanger a peace process in the breakaway province of Abkhazia.

Georgian police and guards surrounded the regional headquarters in Tbilisi yesterday and arrested five Russian army intelligence officers. One of them was accused of spying but was not detained.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who called for emergency consultations of the 15-member Security Council, drafted a statement that would urge Georgia to withdraw troops from the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia and reconsider plans to declare a new republic there. The Russian Foreign Ministry said its ambassador and some personnel had been recalled to Moscow because of a “growing security threat” and warned Russian citizens not to travel to Georgia. The Russian Embassy in Tbilisi announced it had stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens, many of whom travel frequently to Russia for work or to visit relatives.

“We have demanded the immediate release of our citizens and we will achieve this with all the means available to us,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters. “There are grounds for the Security Council to address this problem.”

Mr. Lavrov said the arrests showed that “the party of war” was gaining the upper hand in Tbilisi.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called Georgia’s actions “completely wild and hysterical” and compared the arrests to Stalin’s repressions.

“I won’t be surprised if today the Georgian side files charges against them of wanting to steal the sun from the sky,” Mr. Ivanov, visibly angry, said on Russian television. “All of this is aimed at provoking the situation and raising the degree of escalation to the maximum level in order to deflect attention from the problems that exist in Georgia.”

Georgia on Wednesday arrested five Russian officers, purportedly members of Russia’s GRU army intelligence unit, and a dozen of their suspected Georgian agents.

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said they were part of a “very dangerous” spy network that had operated in Georgia for years. He said the suspects had gathered sensitive military information, organized a February 2005 explosion that killed three police officers and had been preparing a “serious provocation” on Georgian soil.

Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili said police would maintain the blockade around Russia’s military headquarters until the sixth spy suspect was handed over.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have deteriorated since Mikhail Saakashvili came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution.

The Georgian president has angered Moscow by seeking closer ties with the West and NATO membership. The Kremlin retaliated earlier this year with a ban on two of Georgia’s biggest exports, wine and mineral water, purportedly for public health reasons.

Tensions have soared over Russia’s support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regions that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Officials in Tbilisi have been warning of a Russia-backed coup. Earlier this month, Georgian authorities arrested about 20 opposition activists on charges of organizing a foreign-funded plot to overthrow Mr. Saakashvili.

Espionage charges are rarely so public, but Tbilisi-based political analyst Alexander Rondeli said Georgia’s move reflected growing frustration with Russian interference.

“The Georgian leadership has lost all patience with the constant pressure coming from Russia,” he said. “I expect relations will get worse before they get better.”



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