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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Georgia raps Russia's "xenophobia", row rumbles on

TBILISI, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Georgia stepped up a war of words with Russia on Tuesday, accusing its neighbour of "xenophobia", as a visiting Western official called on Moscow and Tbilisi to scale back the row.

Russia, enraged by Georgia's brief detention of four Russian army officers on spying charges last month, has cut rail, air and postal links with the small Caucasus nation and stopped issuing entry visas to Georgians.

Moscow has also slapped new restrictions on Georgians living and working in Russia. Russian television has been running daily reports on the expulsion of scores of what it has termed illegal Georgian migrants engaged in criminal activity.

"Xenophobia and ethnic discrimination have become a tool of (Russia's) state policy," Georgia's parliament said in a unanimous statement.

Georgia's former ruler Moscow, which had earlier banned Georgian wines and mineral water in a move Tbilisi sees as punishment for its pro-Western policy, has ignored pressure from the United States and European Union to call off its sanctions.

Political experts say Russia has been angered by Tbilisi's moves towards full membership in NATO. Many Russian hawkish politicians view the Caucasus as part of Moscow's vulnerable soft underbelly where its clout is waning.

Britain's Minister for Europe Geoff Hoon, on a regional tour, told reporters in Tbilisi: "It is important for regional stability that both sides should exercise restraint, avoiding inflammatory statements and impatient actions.

"We have raised with the Russians the desirability of their lifting as soon as possible the measures they have introduced. I hope that normal contacts based on mutual respect, can be restored between the two countries as soon as possible."


Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, keen to restore central control over the rebel pro-Moscow provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia lost after bloody wars in the early 1990s, said last weekend he was ready to meet Putin any time, anywhere.

But on Monday he said he was considering filing a case against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights over what he called rights abuses against Georgians living in Russia.

On Monday, Georgia turned away two Russian cargo planes carrying Georgians deported from Russia after Saakashvili called the freight aircraft "cattle carriers".

Deputy Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was right to crack down on Georgians he said were living there without proper documents and evading tax.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said earlier in remarks aimed at Georgia: "Do not force us to subsidise your economy to the tune of billions of dollars a year. We will not do that."

Peskov conceded some officials had "over-reacted", in particular when police in Moscow asked some schools to give details of pupils with Georgian-sounding names. Measures had been taken to avoid such action in future, he told reporters.

A Russian Ilyushin-62 passenger plane landed in Tbilisi on Tuesday, carrying another 119 deported Georgians and taking 150 Russian "evacuees" back to Moscow.
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