updated 9/27/2006 3:19:10 PM ET 2006-09-27T19:19:10

Georgian authorities detained four Russian military officers on spying charges Wednesday, and security forces surrounded Russia’s military headquarters in Tbilisi to demand that another suspect be handed over, the interior minister said.

Vano Merabishvili said the Russians, who were detained in the Georgian capital and the Black Sea port of Batumi, had been involved in espionage for several years and were planning a “major provocation.” Twelve Georgians were also detained as part of the spy ring.

“They showed a particular interest in Georgia’s defense capability, its programs of integration into NATO, energy security, political parties and organizations” as well as information about the nation’s military forces and infrastructure, Merabishvili added.

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Georgia’s ambassador to Moscow to protest the detentions and demand the officers’ immediate release. The ministry denounced the Georgian allegations as unfounded and said the detentions “underlined the Georgian leadership’s anti-Russian course.”

The move highlights escalating tensions between the ex-Soviet Caucasus nation and its giant northern neighbor since President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power following Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and pledged to move the country more toward the West.

Earlier this year, Russia banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water on sanitary reasons, which was widely seen as a cover for an attempt to hurt Georgia’s economy. Then, this month, Georgian authorities arrested activists of several opposition groups on charges of plotting a coup against Saakashvili with Russia’s blessing.

Georgian officials have also long accused Russia of backing separatists in Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — a charge Russia has denied.

Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to the provinces, which have enjoyed de-facto independence without international recognition since breaking away after bloody wars in the early 1990s. Russia has also granted most residents of the two regions citizenship.

Russia’s military has retained bases in Georgia long after the 1991 Soviet collapse, but has pledged to withdraw them by the end of 2008.

Saakashvili, who has vowed to take Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into fold, accused Moscow last week of “gangster occupation” of the two provinces in a speech before the United Nations.

On Wednesday, he flew into the Kodori Gorge, a section of Abkhazia controlled by government forces, to rename it Upper Abkhazia in an effort to reassert control over the region. Forces moved into the upper section of the gorge two months ago to root out members of a defiant militia.

The leader of Abkhazia’s separatist government derided the renaming and warned it would fuel tensions. “We view attempts at renaming part of the territory or gorge with a political subtext as the latest provocation by Mikhail Saakashvili,” said Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh.

Georgian authorities detained four Russian military officers on spying charges Wednesday, and security forces surrounded Russia’s military headquarters in Tbilisi to demand that another suspect be handed over, the interior minister said.

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said the four Russian military intelligence officers had been detained in the Georgian capital and the Black Sea port of Batumi on charges of espionage.

Interior Ministry forces surrounded the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi demanding the handover of another Russian officer accused of spying.

The move highlights escalating tensions in relations between the ex-Soviet Caucasus nation and its giant northern neighbor, which has retained military bases in Georgia after the 1991 Soviet collapse but pledged to withdraw them by the end 2008.

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