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Russia orders Georgia evacuation

BBC | September 28 2006

Russia has ordered a partial withdrawal of officials and their families in Georgia in a worsening row over the arrest of Russian officers there.
The Russian ambassador would also leave Tbilisi, said the foreign ministry.

It follows Wednesday's arrests of five Russian military personnel accused by Tbilisi of spying. Moscow is demanding their immediate release.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili denounced the Russian reaction to the arrests as "hysteria".

The already tense relations between the two countries have deteriorated over the past week, correspondents say.

The Russian foreign ministry said it decided to begin the evacuation of its personnel because of "a growing threat to their security".

It said emergency situations ministry planes would start flying Russian officials out of Georgia on Friday.

Moscow also advised all its nationals to avoid trips to Georgia.

In another development earlier on Thursday, the Russian embassy stopped receiving documents for issuing visas to Georgian nationals.

Trading accusations

The tensions between the two countries escalated after the arrests of the five Russian military personnel - four officers and an NCO - on suspicion of spying.

Georgia is also demanding the handover of another Russian officer who is believed to be inside the Russian army headquarters in Tbilisi, surrounded by Georgian police.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said on Thursday files would be released showing that the detained Russian officers had been "personally carrying out intelligence activities".

He said earlier they had been collecting information on Georgia's relations with Nato, as well on its sea port and railway infrastructure, opposition parties and army.

"We neutralised a very serious and dangerous group," Mr Merabishvili said, adding that the arrested had planned "a major provocation".

Georgia has also linked the five officers to an attack in the town of Gori which killed three police officers and injured dozens of people.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the actions as subversive and said they should be taken up by the UN.

"It is another manifestation of anti-Russian policy," he said, quoted by Itar-Tass news agency.

Growing tension

Georgia has accused Russia of actively trying undermine its government by backing separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, says the BBC's Matthew Collin in Tbilisi.

Wednesday's arrests coincided with the first official visit by pro-Western Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to a disputed area on the border between Georgia and Abkhazia.

Russia said his visit was dangerous and would raise tensions between Russia and Georgia.

Tbilisi also says Moscow is waging economic war against the country through embargoes on imports of Georgian products.

Russia has denied the allegations.

Relations between the two nations have become increasingly tense since Mr Saakashvili came to power in 2004, pledging to take the Caucasus nation out of Russia's orbit and join Nato and the European Union.

In 2005, Russia agreed to close its two remaining Soviet-era bases in Georgia by 2008.

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