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Friday, October 06, 2006

Russia 'deports 143 Georgians'

MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) -- Russia deported a planeload of Georgians accused of immigration offences on Friday, the latest retaliation by Moscow intended to bring its small southern neighbor to heel.

Georgia enraged Moscow by arresting four Russian army officers last week on spying charges. The men were later released but their arrest ignited smoldering tensions between the two nations over Georgia's wish to move closer to the West.

The Georgian deportees were rounded up in police raids over the past few days, taken to a military airport outside Moscow and put on a plane bound for Tbilisi. Many were frightened.

"It is terrible, we feel like Jews during World War Two, not like humans," one of the deportees, who gave her name as Irina, told Reuters by mobile telephone from a bus at the airport.

"Last night they told us we would be deported today and advised us to call relatives so they could bring us some essential things."

Russia has severed all transport and postal links with its ex-Soviet neighbor, stopped issuing visas to Georgians, banned key Georgian exports to Russia and raided Georgian businesses in Moscow.

Friday's deportations followed President Vladimir Putin's order on Wednesday to tighten up controls on illegal migrants. Up to a million Georgians live and work in Russia, many without permits, and their remittances are an important contribution to a Georgian economy suffering serious unemployment.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying 143 Georgians were on board the plane. In Tbilisi, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said it would arrive in Georgia at 1600 local time (1200 GMT).

The Kremlin wants Tbilisi to show a "more constructive attitude" before it will consider abandoning sanctions.

Russia's Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika insisted its retaliatory measures were "being carried out within the framework of the law". Selective law enforcement is a long-standing Kremlin tactic against opponents.

A deputy head of the education department in the Moscow government said police had contacted schools to look for Georgian children whose parents might be illegal immigrants.

Alexander Garvilov told Ekho Moskvy radio: "Our attitude is quite negative. Moscow schools have not done and will not do this job."

Russia is pressing ahead with the withdrawal of around 2,000 troops from bases in Georgia, a relic of Soviet times.

"We need to withdraw the troops so that there are no potential hostages there if the situation deteriorates," nationalist deputy Dmitry Rogozin said at parliamentary hearings on the pullout.

Georgia's charismatic and outspoken President Mikhail Saakashvili has dismissed the economic sanctions and vowed to continue his drive for NATO membership.

Saakashvili was boosted on Friday when early returns from local elections indicated he had won a convincing victory over the opposition.

Diplomats fear the crisis could lead to the risk of clashes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions which broke free from Georgian central control in the early 1990s and favor closer links with Russia.
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