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.

"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, adding that Georgia's actions were "to push Russian peacekeepers out by any means possible ... and then to submit an application to join NATO."

Two Russian planes, meanwhile, evacuated 84 diplomats and their relatives from Georgia, officials said. The Russian ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, said after returning to Moscow that families of all Russian military in Georgia also will depart, Interfax reported.

Georgian police surrounded the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi on Friday, hoping to detain another Russian officer accused of spying. Russia has refused to surrender the officer.

In Moscow, police blocked streets around the Georgian Embassy. They allowed some 20 nationalists to protest briefly against Georgia's president before detaining them for holding an unsanctioned rally.

Russia's ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky called on Friday for "the most resolute action, up to the deployment of forces and air raids." A Kremlin-connected lawmaker, Konstantin Kosachev, said Moscow would not yield to what he called Georgia's provocation and stressed that "any forceful measures are absolutely excluded."

Separately, an official in South Ossetia claimed that masked Georgian officers shot out the tires of a car carrying four Russian peacekeepers, a woman and a child Thursday night, then ordered the men out and beat them. One peacekeeper sustained a fractured skull, according to the internationally unrecognized South Ossetian government, and Ivanov said there was proof they were "brutally beaten."

Georgian officials denied the allegations, saying police stopped a car with Russian peacekeepers, checked their documents and released them.

Russia's Foreign Ministry advised its citizens to refrain from traveling to Georgia, citing security concerns, and its embassy in Tbilisi stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens.

Saakashvili denounced the moves as hysteria.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for "moderation and de-escalation, and that goes for both parties," and a U.S. State Department official said both sides had to work toward a solution.

Matthew J. Bryza, in Berlin for diplomatic consultations on Abkhazia, also told journalists that "Georgia has expressed its sovereign view ... that it doesn't want Russian peacekeepers on its territory. There is a question of what is prudent, and what is the most effective way of asserting that right in the case of Tbilisi."

© 2006 The Associated Press