TBILISI, Georgia – Georgia on Friday charged four Russian military officers with spying, while Russian government planes evacuated dozens of diplomats and their relatives as the diplomatic dispute worsened between Moscow and the former Soviet republic.
Georgian police also maintained their positions around the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi, hoping to detain another officer accused of spying. Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko said Moscow would not hand him over.
The Tbilisi City Court ruled that two of the four detained officers can be held for another two months, a spokesman said. It was to consider the cases of the other two later in the day, Ilya Gergedava told The Associated Press.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld voiced concern about the growing tensions to his counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who held talks with NATO ministers in Portoroz, Slovenia.
"The thread of those discussions clearly was for there to be calm, and for those tensions to be eased down in a peaceful way," Rumsfeld said at a briefing.
Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been increasingly tense since President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power following Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and pledged to move the country out of Russia's orbit and more toward the West.
The latest conflict arose after five Russian military officers were detained Wednesday on allegations of spying. The fifth officer was released Friday.
Moscow complained to the United Nations on Thursday and said it was recalling its ambassador and evacuating its diplomats. Ivanov denounced Georgia as a "bandit" state.
Ivanov said the arrests were aimed at pushing Russian troops out of Georgia so the government could seize control of pro-Russian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abhkazia by force, and he accused unidentified newer NATO members of illegally supplying Georgia with Soviet-made weapons.
"It is absolutely clear to us that clear to us that Georgia has chosen the military path, the forceful path, for resolving the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said after the NATO meeting.
The commander of Russian military forces in Georgia, Gen. Andrei Popov, said the detentions cast doubt over a plan to withdraw its troops from two bases Russia maintains in Georgia, the Interfax news agency reported. One is to be closed in 2007; the other a year later.
Tbilisi has accused Moscow of backing separatists in the breakaway provinces and making efforts to undermine Saakashvili's government — allegations Russia has denied. The provinces have enjoyed de-facto independence without international recognition since breaking away after bloody wars in the early 1990s.
Tensions in the breakaway provinces have been heightened since the detentions. On Friday, an official in South Ossetia claimed that masked Georgian military or security officers shot out the tires of a car carrying four Russian peacekeepers, a woman and a child the night before, then ordered the men out and beat them.
Irina Gagloyeva, spokeswoman for the South Ossetian government, said one of the peacekeepers sustained a fractured skull, and Ivanov said they were "brutally beaten."
Paata Bedianashvili, spokesman for Georgian peacekeepers in the region, called the allegations "rubbish." He said Georgian police stopped a car containing Russian peacekeepers but merely checked their documents and let them go.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has advised all Russians to refrain from traveling to Georgia, and the embassy in Tbilisi stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens. Two Russian Emergency Situations Ministry planes evacuated 84 diplomats and their family members from Georgia, said ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov.
Saakashvili denounced such moves as hysteria. "Russian personnel and their families face absolutely no threat here," he said Thursday.
In Moscow, police cordoned off the streets around the Georgian Embassy and allowed a small group of ultra-nationalist activists hold a brief protest before detaining them for holding an unsanctioned demonstration.
Foreign diplomats urged calm between the two countries. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for "moderation and de-escalation, and that goes for both parties."
However, Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Matthew J. Bryza said Georgia "has expressed its sovereign view ... that it doesn't want Russian peacekeepers on its territory."
"There is a question of what is prudent, and what is the most effective way of asserting that right in the case of Tbilisi," he said in Berlin, where he was having talks with Germany, Russia, Britain and France over the situation in Abkhazia.
He said Russia and Georgia should decide on ways to either replace or complement the Russian peacekeepers, in order to meet Georgia's desire for more of an international presence in Abkhazia without creating a security vacuum.
"We would argue that the best way is to talk things through ... to avoid escalation, avoid tension wherever possible," he said.