Russia May Revise Georgia Troops Plan

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 30, 2006; 1:32 AM

TBILISI, Georgia -- Russia warned on Friday that its plans to close military bases in Georgia were in doubt and Georgia claimed Russia was moving troops near their shared border, as relations between the countries deteriorated in one of their worst crises since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia, which have increased since pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2003, escalated after the arrest in Georgia on Wednesday of four Russian military officers accused of spying.

Russia has recalled its ambassador, evacuated some diplomats and their families and issued a formal protest to the United Nations. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has denounced Georgia as a "bandit" state.

Georgia on Friday accused Russia of redeploying additional troops closer to the border and said the Russian Black Sea fleet was expected to start maneuvers in the next few days. "I would advise our colleagues to stop saber-rattling. "This is unacceptable for a democratic country and we don't understand that," Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told reporters.

Since gaining power in the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has pledged to move the country out of Russia's orbit, take control of breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and join NATO in 2008. Georgia's pro-Western course has vexed the Kremlin, and Georgian authorities accused Russia of backing separatists.

Tbilisi courts on Friday ordered the four Russian officers remanded in custody for two months, Anzor Khvadagiani, a Tbilisi prosecutor, told The Associated Press. A fifth serviceman also arrested Wednesday was released the next day for lack of evidence. The courts also extended the arrest of 10 Georgian citizens accused of involvement in a Russian spy ring.

Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili said on Imedi television late Friday that the detained Russian officers could be returned to Russia. "I don't exclude such a possibility," Okruashvili said.

At the United Nations, the United States late Friday proposed major changes to a Russian statement expressing "deep concerns" about Georgia's actions. The U.S. did not publicly disclose the proposed changes but Russia's U.N. Mission said "the American proposals and amendments change the nature of the draft ... and that makes the acceptance of the presidential statement impossible."

Gen. Andrei Popov, commander of Russian military forces in Georgia, said Russia's obligation to close its two remaining military bases in Georgia by the end of 2008 still stands, but added that "if our servicemen are arrested and put in custody, there will be problems with the withdrawal since there will be no people left to prepare weapons for the pullout," the Interfax news agency reported.

Popov's spokesman, Col. Vladimir Kuparadze, confirmed his statement.

Russia has between 3,000 and 4,000 troops at its two military bases in Georgia proper, and 2,500 peacekeepers deployed to separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ivanov, meeting Friday with NATO members in Slovenia, said the arrests were aimed at pushing Russian troops out of Georgia so the government could seize control of the breakaway provinces by force, and he accused unnamed newer NATO members of illegally supplying Georgia with Soviet-made weapons.

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