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Georgia, Russia Spar Over Spy Charges

Georgia's arrest of four Russian military officers, charged with spying, has increased the already-tense relationship between the two countries.

Tbilisi courts ruled Friday to keep the four Russian officers in custody for another two months, prosecutor Anzor Khvadagiani told the AP. The courts also extended the arrest of 10 Georgian citizens accused of involvement in the Russian spy ring.

Russia's defense minister said the arrests were aimed at pushing its troops from Georgia so the government could seize control of pro-Russian breakaway provinces by force, and he accused newer NATO members of illegally supplying Georgia with Soviet-made weapons.

Relations between the ex-Soviet nations have been exacerbated by the arrests. On Thursday, Russia recalled its ambassador and complained to the United Nations.

And Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has denounced Georgia as a "bandit" state.

Since coming into office, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has done all he can to move his formerly Soviet state out of Russia's sphere of influence, and into America's, CBS News reporter Beth Knobel explains.

And he's found the United States to be a willing partner. Saakashvili, who speaks perfect English and did graduate work in law at Columbia University in New York, has developed a close personal relationship with President Bush. At Saakashivili's invitation, Mr. Bush visited Georgia last year — the first stop there ever by an American leader.

Mr. Bush's fondness for the charismatic and energetic Saakashvili seems to have increased U.S. interest in Georgia, and tilted American foreign policy towards Georgia, according to Knobel, which has not gone over well in Russia.

Many Russian officials see the U.S. influence in Georgia as interference, Knobel said.

America's support of Georgia is already a small bone of contention between the U.S. and the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin, an infinitely important international ally in the region.

A U.S. State Department official said both sides had to work together to solve the situation.

Matthew J. Bryza, in Berlin for diplomatic consultations on Russian-Georgian relations, told journalists that "Georgia has expressed its sovereign view ... that it doesn't want Russian peacekeepers on its territory. There is a question of what is prudent, and what is the most effective way of asserting that right in the case of Tbilisi."

He said Russia and Georgia should decide on ways to either replace or complement the Russian peacekeepers, in order to meet Georgia's desire for more of an international presence in Abkhazia without creating a security vacuum.

"We would argue that the best way is to talk things through ... to avoid escalation, avoid tension wherever possible," he said.

Also Friday, highlighting the heightened tension, two Russian planes evacuated 84 diplomats and their relatives from Georgia, officials said. The diplomats and their families were seen waiting in line at the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi to have their documents checked by Georgian police.

The espionage charges were officially filed against the Russian officers, who were detained Wednesday, said Shota Khizanishvili, spokesman for Georgia's interior minister. A fifth officer, who served as a contract soldier, was released Friday, he said.

Bilateral ties long have been strained over Georgia's bid to join NATO and Moscow's close links to Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Abkhazia.

Ivanov, meeting with NATO members in Slovenia, said Georgia's actions were "to push Russian peacekeepers out by any means possible ... and then to submit an application to join NATO."

"It is absolutely clear to us that Georgia has chosen the military path, the forceful path, for resolving the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said.

Georgian police still surrounded the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi Friday, hoping to detain another Russian officer accused of spying. Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko said Moscow would not surrender the officer.

In Moscow, police blocked off the streets around the Georgian Embassy. Police allowed a group of some 20 activists to stage a brief protest against Georgia's president outside security cordons before detaining them for holding an unsanctioned rally.

Separately, an official in South Ossetia claimed that masked Georgian military or security officers shot out the tires of a car carrying four Russian peacekeepers, a woman and a child Thursday night, then ordered the men out and beat them.

The peacekeepers sustained a fractured skull, according to the internationally unrecognized South Ossetian government, and Ivanov said there was proof they were "brutally beaten."

Georgian officials denied the allegations, saying police stopped a car with Russian peacekeepers, checked their documents and released them.

Russia's Foreign Ministry advised its citizens to refrain from traveling to Georgia, citing security concerns, and its embassy in Tbilisi stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili denounced the moves as hysteria.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have become increasingly tense since Saakashvili came to power following Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, pledging to move the country out of Russia's orbit.

Tbilisi officials have 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.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for "moderation and de-escalation, and that goes for both parties."

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