Georgia moved to defuse spiraling tensions with Russia yesterday by promising to release four detained Russian military officers under a Western-brokered deal.
But Moscow made its first retaliatory move, with reports saying it will suspend transport and postal links, in a step that would likely exacerbate the worst bilateral crisis in years between Russia and the former Soviet state.
The arrests infuriated Russia, which has put its troops in Georgia on high alert, recalled its ambassador and evacuated its citizens.
The RIA-Novosti, ITAR-Tass and Interfax news agencies quoted the transport and communications ministries as saying that all postal, air, road, rail and sea links with Georgia would be suspended. The communications ministry said it could not immediately confirm the reports and the transport ministry did not answer the phone.
The announcement came shortly after Georgia said it would release the four Russian officers, who were detained last week on spying charges, into the hands of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe.
Vano Noniashvili, a spokesman for President Mikhail Saakashvili, said that the four Russians would be handed over to officials from the trans-Atlantic security alliance after a press conference by Saakashvili and the visiting OSCE head.
"Today, after the briefing of the OSCE chairman and the Georgian president ... the four Russian military officers who were detained will be transferred to [the care of] OSCE representatives," he said.
An OSCE spokesman said the organization was acting as a mediator between Georgia and Russia and the four men would no longer face spying charges.
The Russian embassy in Tbilisi said the four officers were to be flown to Moscow yesterday, ITAR-Tass reported.
Ties between Tbilisi and Moscow had already been strained over Georgia's bid to join NATO, and allegations that Russia was backing two Georgian separatist provinces. Moscow denies that claim.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the arrests yesterday as "state terrorism."
"Those who are doing that believe that anti-Russian course of foreign policy meets the Georgian people's interests. I don't think so," Putin said.
Despite the tensions, Putin said Russia would stick to a deal signed last year to withdraw its troops from Georgia by the end of 2008.
The commander of Russian military forces in Georgia said his troops had been put on high alert and ordered to shoot to kill.
A number of senior pro-Kremlin lawmakers urged even stronger measures and Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanadze in an interview published yesterday said that Georgia was counting on international support if the row escalated dangerously.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has charged that the arrests of the officers were aimed at pushing Russian troops out of Georgia so the government could seize control of the separatist provinces.
Russia's long-tense relations with Georgia have worsened since Saak-ashvili came to power, pledging to move the nation out of Russia's orbit, bring breakaway provinces back into fold and join NATO.
Along with some 2,500 peacekeepers in breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has between 3,000 and 4,000 troops at two military bases in Georgia that it pledged to withdraw by the end of 2008 under a deal signed last year.