Russia and Georgia Dispute Spies, Soldiers

The long-simmering confrontation between Russia and Georgia has escalated after the arrest of four Russian intelligence officers in the Georgian capital. The Russian defense minister says Russia will use "all means available" to free the men, who the Georgians accuse of spying. Relations between the two countries are strained by the presence of Russian troops in two breakaway regions of Georgia. The Georgians have demanded their withdrawal, but the Russians say they are peacekeepers and should stay.

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Relations between Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia have been tense for some time. Georgia wants Russian troops to leave the country, while Moscow sees Georgia's plan to join NATO as a threat. Now the Georgians have arrested a number of Russian military officers on charges of espionage and terrorism. The Russian government is furious. It has withdrawn its ambassador and says Russia will use all means available to free the men.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: The Georgian authorities detained four Russian military intelligence officers yesterday. Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said they'd been collecting information about the country's military capability, energy security and political parties.

Mr. VANO MERABISHVILI (Interior Minister, Georgia): (Through Translator) We had information that this group had been planning a serious provocation. That's why we decided to detain these people in a preventive measure.

FEIFER: Merabishvili said the spy ring's leader also orchestrated a bomb blast that killed three police officers last year.

Georgian television later showed police making some of the arrests. They detained at least one other Russian officer and cordoned off Russia's military headquarters in the capital, Tbilisi, demanding that another suspect hiding inside be handed over. About ten Georgians have also been detained.

Moscow reacted angrily to the arrests. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the charges a complete outrage and vowed to take adequate and reasonable measures to free the men.

Mr. SERGEI IVANOV (Defense Minister, Russia): (Through Translator) All the actions of the Georgian authorities can be characterized as utterly irresponsible. It shows their open desire to provoke Russia with the use of hysteria.

FEIFER: Ivanov said Georgian police had stopped and beaten other Russian military personnel in the Black Sea port of Batumi before releasing them. Tbilisi denies the charge. Police told Georgian television they had evidence and would soon make it public.

The detained Russians are part of a contingent of peacekeepers Moscow sent to its southern neighbor in the 1990s to end a short civil war. But Georgia accuses Russia of using its soldiers to promote instability by backing two separatist regions.

Russia has reluctantly agreed to remove its troops by 2008, but Ivan Safranchuk of the World Security Institute says Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili wants them out as soon as possible since they stand in the way of his desire for Georgia to join NATO. Safranchuk believes yesterday's arrests were a risky move aimed at raising the stakes.

Mr. IVAN SAFRANCHUK (World Security Institute): Georgia may benefit from it or on the contrary, Georgia may lose from that, because if Georgia fails to prove that there was some espionage activity, then I think Russia will have all the right to be very tough on Georgia.

FEIFER: Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been tense since the collapse of communism in 1991. But Moscow was particularly upset when pro-Western Saakashvili was elected after the country's Rose Revolution two years ago.

His close relations with the United States are particularly galling to Russia, which sees its former subject state as part of its sphere of influence. Moscow is recalling some of its embassy workers from Tbilisi and is advising Russians not to travel there. The embassy has also stopped issuing visas to Georgians, many of whom depend on jobs in Russia.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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