updated 9/28/2006 12:58:20 PM ET 2006-09-28T16:58:20

Russia on Thursday recalled its ambassador from Georgia and announced a partial evacuation of diplomats and their families from the former Soviet republic as relations between the two countries hit a new low.

The moves came a day after Georgia detained five Russian officers on spying charges. Ties between Tbilisi and Moscow are already strained by Georgia’s bid to join NATO and Russia’s close links to Georgia’s breakaway provinces.

The detention by Georgia prompted angry statements from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov who denounced Georgia as a “bandit” state.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow decided to launch a “partial evacuation of Russian personnel in Georgia and their family members in connection with a growing threat to their security.” It said that the evacuation will start Friday and will be conducted by the Emergency Situations Ministry planes. The ministry also alerted all Russians to refrain from trips to Georgia.

President Mikhail Saakashvili denounced the Russian move as “hysteria.”

“Russian personnel and their families face absolutely no threat here,” he said.

Mikhail Svirin, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Georgia, said that Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, some of the staffers and all diplomats’ families would leave Friday.

The Russian Embassy has indefinitely suspended the issuance of visas to all Georgian citizens.

'Russia will react appropriately'
Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have become increasingly tense after Saakashvili came to power following Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, pledging to take the Caucasus Mountains nation out of Russia’s orbit.

Georgian 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.

Ivanov called the charges against the officers absurd and demanded their immediate release. “I won’t be surprised if today the Georgian side files charges against them of wanting to steal the sun from the sky,” Ivanov said on Russian television.

“All of this is aimed at provoking the situation and raising the degree of escalation to the maximum level in order to deflect attention from problems that exist in Georgia,” Ivanov said. “Russia will react appropriately and responsibly.”

Speaking later on a trip to Slovenia, he said he advised all Russian servicemen and their family members from going out. “Banditry in Georgia has reached state dimensions,” he said in televised remarks.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said four Russian military intelligence officers were detained in Tbilisi and the Black Sea port of Batumi on charges of espionage. A fifth officer was detained later Wednesday, the ministry said in a statement.

Georgian security forces maintained a presence around the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi for a second day Thursday, demanding the handover of another Russian officer accused of spying.

Russia maintains two military bases in Georgia as Soviet-era holdovers. One is to be closed in 2007 and the other a year later.

Russian peacekeepers also have been deployed to Georgia’s separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that have enjoyed de facto independence after breaking away in bloody wars in the early 1990s. Russia has also granted most residents of the two regions citizenship.

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.

Georgia strengthening pressure on Russia
Ivanov alleged the detentions were part of Georgia’s efforts to force Russia to withdraw its peacekeepers. “All this is done to squeeze our peacekeepers and to make their status illegitimate using any means, thus violating fragrantly all previous agreements,” he said.

A Georgian political analyst, Ramaz Sakvarelidze, said the detentions could reflect Saakashvili’s frustration at being unable to fulfill his promise of regaining control of the renegade provinces.

Noting that Saakashvili’s Western allies would likely oppose Georgia retaking the regions by force, “the Georgian government, taking these factors into account, is strengthening its political pressure on Russia ... a spy scandal fits organically into such a scheme of action,” Sakvarelidze said.

Ivanov also accused Georgian police of briefly detaining and beating seven Russian soldiers in Batumi. His Georgian counterpart, Irakly Okruashvili, said the servicemen were detained for several hours but denied that they had been beaten.

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