Georgian officials say four Russian officers detained in Tbilisi have been charged with spying and are expected to appear in court for a preliminary hearing. The arrest angered Russia which says it will recall its ambassador to Tbilisi and will begin a partial evacuation of its personnel from Georgia.
On Thursday, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabisvhili showed journalists video and audiotapes that, in his words, "confirmed the guilt of the arrested officers." The videotapes reportedly show the arrested officers meeting with suspected Georgian agents in Tbilisi, an exchange of cash, and a meeting at the Georgian-Armenian border between a Russian officer and a Georgian agent.
Georgian officials also say the officers are linked to an attack in the town of Gori in February 2005 which killed three police officers and injured 26.
But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov refutes these allegations. He says the charges against the officers are, in his words, absolutely forced ? and that the officers could have not participated in the attack as they arrived to serve in Georgia only three months ago.
In response to the arrests, Russia called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. It said it will recall its ambassador to Tbilisi and has stopped issuing visas to Georgian nationals. Moscow also ordered a partial evacuation of its personnel and members of their families in Georgia "in connection with a growing threat to their security".
Georgia president Mikhail Saakashvili described Moscow's reaction to the arrests as "hysteria." His defense minister, Iralki Orukashvili ,said the arrests highlight Georgia's stance on as an independent state.
Speaking on Russian television NTV though a translator, he said the arrests showed that Georgia will not allow agents and spies to run freely. He said that until today , those people thought that they are dealing not with the Georgian state but with a Georgian territory, with no borders and state structures. Georgian police is still surrounding a Russian military HQ building in Tbilisi.
Orukashvili said there were many other people who needed to be arrested and said the building will be cordoned off while those who are suspected of espionage and diversions on the territory of Georgia remain there.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, however, said the arrest was aimed at provoking the situation and accused Georgian officials of trying to divert the attention from the country's internal problems.
Observers say relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have deteriorated in recent weeks, since Georgia and the Western military alliance NATO agreed to hold talks on closer relations. Georgia also accused Russia of actively trying to undermine its government by backing separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to the separatist provinces, which have enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in bloody wars in the early 1990s. Russia has also granted citizenship to most residents of the two regions.
Mr. Saakashvili has vowed to take Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the fold, and he accused the Kremlin last week of "gangster occupation" of the two provinces in a speech before the United Nations.