Friday, September 29, 2006

Georgian "Bandits"

TBILISI, Georgia - Georgia on Friday charged four Russian military officers with spying, while Russian government planes evacuated dozens of diplomats and their relatives as the diplomatic dispute worsened between Moscow and the former Soviet republic. 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.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld voiced concern about the growing tensions to his counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. "The thread of those discussions clearly was for there to be calm, and for those tensions to be eased down in a peaceful way," Rumsfeld said at a briefing. Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been increasingly tense since President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power following Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and pledged to move the country out of Russia's orbit and more toward the West. Ivanov denounced Georgia as a "bandit" state.
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, and he accused unidentified newer NATO members of illegally supplying Georgia with Soviet-made weapons. "It is absolutely clear to us that 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 Saakashvili's government — allegations Russia has denied. The provinces have enjoyed 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. On Friday, an official in South Ossetia claimed that masked Georgian military or security officers shot out the tires of a car carrying four Russian peacekeepers, a woman and a child the night before, then ordered the men out and beat them. Irina Gagloyeva, spokeswoman for the South Ossetian government, said one of the peacekeepers sustained a fractured skull, and Ivanov said they were "brutally beaten."
The Russian Foreign Ministry has advised all Russians to refrain from 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 family members from Georgia, said ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov. Russia and Georgia should decide on ways to either replace or complement the Russian peacekeepers, in order to meet Georgia's desire for more of an international presence in Abkhazia without creating a security vacuum.