Mon, Oct 02, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Russian - Georgian spy spat sparks war of words

BAD TIMING Just as a row over spying accusations was heating up, Moscow invited a pair of Georgian breakaway provinces to attend an economic forum

AFP , MOSCOW

Russian diplomats and employees of the Russian embassy in Georgia enter the aircraft of the Russian Ministry of Emergencies at Tbilisi airport on Saturday.

PHOTO: EPA

The war of words between Moscow and Tbilisi continued yesterday after diplomats evacuated from Russia's Georgian embassy arrived in Moscow, with Tbilisi calling "outrageous" a Russian overture toward two breakaway Georgian regions.

Long-running tensions between the two states have spiked since Tbilisi arrested four Russian officers last week and accused them of espionage, which prompted Moscow to evacuate all but a skeleton staff from its embassy in Tbilisi.

The 38 Russian diplomats and family members arrived by plane at a suburban Moscow airport late on Saturday.

Approximately 80 other staff members had previously been evacuated, the Iterfax news agency reported.

Yesterday, the Georgian Foreign Ministry denounced Russia's invitation to officials from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to attend an economic forum in Russia as nothing less than "outrageous."

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are breakaway Georgian regions that are backed by Moscow, but that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has vowed to regain control over.

"The invitation came from official Russia bodies -- the foreign ministry, the ministry of economy and trade, and the chamber of commerce -- which makes the separatist leaders' participation in the forum particularly alarming and offensive," Georgia's foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Kuban-2006 International Economic Forum opened in Russia's Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Thursday. Among the participants listed on the forum's Web site is Sergei Bagapsh, the president of the separatist republic of Abkhazia.

Also yesterday, the pro-Western Saakashvili told an audience in Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi not to fear planned Russian naval training in the area.

"Pay no attention to anything. Our response will be the legal process, the supremacy of law and a stable country that continues to live, develop and assert itself in the modern world," Saakashvili said, according to a transcript posted on a Georgian government Web site.

Relations between Russia and the ex-Soviet state have been tense at various times for two centuries.

They worsened sharply in 2003 when the Rose Revolution swept Saakashvili to power.

The Russian military has suspended the withdrawal of its troops from Georgia, which has been underway since May last year.

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