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Russia, Georgia Spy Row Escalates
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Russia recalled its ambassador from Georgia Thursday and announced the evacuation of Russian personnel and their families from the country, the Foreign Ministry said.

The Russian move follows the detention of five Russian officers on spying charges in Georgia, which further escalated tensions in bilateral relations strained over Georgia's bid to join NATO and Moscow's close ties to two separatist Georgian provinces.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov called the charges against the officers absurd and demanded their immediate release.

"I won't be surprised if today the Georgian side files charges against them of wanting to steal the sun from the sky," Ivanov quipped 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 problems that exist in Georgia," Ivanov said. "Russia will react appropriately and responsibly."

Relations between Moscow and have become increasingly tense after President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power following Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, pledging to take the Caucasus nation out of Russia's orbit.

Georgian officials have also accused Russia of backing separatists in Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and making efforts to undermine Saakashvili's government allegations Russia has denied.

A Georgian political analyst, Ramaz Sakvarelidze, said the detentions could reflect Saakashvili's frustration at being unable to fulfill his promise of regaining control of the renegade provinces.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said on Wednesday four Russian military intelligence officers were detained in the Georgian capital and the Black Sea port of Batumi on charges of espionage. A fifth officer was detained later that day, the ministry said in a statement.

Russia maintains two military bases in Georgia as Soviet-era holdovers. One is to be closed in 2007 and the other a year later.

Merabishvili said a dozen Georgian citizens who were part of the same "very dangerous" spy chain were also detained.

He said the ring was led by a Russian agent who allegedly staged a February 2005 mine explosion that killed three police officers in the town of Gori.

Merabishvili said the suspects had been involved in espionage for several years. Georgian authorities moved to detain the suspects to thwart a "serious provocation" they had prepared, Merabishvili said on Wednesday.

He added that they showed interest in the country's defence capabilities, its plans to join NATO, energy security, political groupings and information about Georgia's military.

(China Daily September 29, 2006)


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