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Monday, October 02, 2006

Russian "spies" fly out of Georgia

TBILISI (Reuters) - Four Russian army officers arrested in Georgia for spying were allowed to fly home on Monday as Tbilisi tried to defuse the worst crisis in years between the ex-Soviet neighbours.

But Moscow ignored international appeals for a similar goodwill gesture and announced it would cut air, sea and land links between the two countries, alleging unpaid debts and safety violations.

After a compromise deal brokered by international mediators, the four Russian officers boarded a Russian Emergencies Ministry aircraft at Tbilisi's airport and then took off bound for Moscow, said a Reuters witness at the airport.

Earlier, at a ceremony in front of the media, Georgian police officers removed handcuffs from the four and handed them over to a delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"The message to Russia is: 'Enough is enough'," Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told reporters at the ceremony, which was conducted mostly in English for the benefit of international media.

"We want to have good relations. We want to have dialogue. But we cannot be treated as a second-rate backyard of some kind of emerging empire."

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, welcomed Tbilisi's decision to release the Russian soldiers. "I hope normal relations can now be re-established between Russia and Georgia," he said in a statement.

But the release did not appear to have appeased officials in Russia, Georgia's former imperial master which has been alarmed by Tbilisi's drive to join NATO and the EU.

Russia's state railways operator said trains would stop running to Georgia from Tuesday and Russia's head of air traffic control Alexander Neradko said "from 0000 on October 3 Moscow time air links between Russia and Georgia will be ceased".

Severing transport links could cause severe hardship in Georgia, a small mountainous republic of five million people which depends heavily on Russia for trade, energy, power and remittances.

Saakashvili dismissed the Russian measures, telling reporters he would not accept Moscow's bullying of his country.

"The rules of the game should change," he said. "It's no longer the Soviet empire and we are no longer a rebellious nation that is rebelling against its central government. We are an independent and free nation and should be respected as such."

The handover did not mean Tbilisi was exonerating the Russian officers, he added. "I want to make it very ... clear. We have a very solid case of espionage, subversion, trying to destabilise my country."


U.S President George W. Bush called Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Monday to discuss the situation in Georgia, as well as Iran, Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Alexei Gromov as saying.

RIA-Novosti agency reported that Putin had told Bush it was unacceptable for other countries to take steps that Georgia could interpret as support for Tbilisi's "destructive policies".

The latest crisis between Moscow and Tbilisi began after Georgia arrested the officers last Wednesday, leading to a war of words between the neighbours, including a sharp verbal attack by Putin on Sunday when he accused Georgia of "state terrorism".

Since the crisis began, Russia has withdrawn its ambassador and dozens of officials from Tbilisi and stopped issuing visas to Georgians.

Analysts said Georgia had heeded the advice of its Western partners in deciding to hand over the Russians to the OSCE.

"It seems the international community and Georgia's partners have recommended to Saakashvili's government that it calm the situation down," said Ramaz Sakvarelidze, a Tbilisi-based political analyst. "Georgia needs Western support so it always takes into account all their recommendations."

Saakashvili swept to power in a popular revolution in 2003 and wants to move his country firmly out of Russia's orbit and to join NATO.

He has strongly criticised Moscow for supporting separatists in two regions of Georgia which broke away from central control in the early 1990s.
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