Russia Halts Troop Withdrawal From Georgia as Tensions Rise

Russia evacuated all but two staff members and guards from its embassy in Georgia on Saturday and announced it was suspending planning for further troop withdrawals from its ex-Soviet neighbor.

The biggest bilateral crisis in years erupted after the arrest in Georgia on Wednesday of four Russian military officers accused of spying. Ties between Tbilisi and Moscow were already strained over Georgia's bid to join NATO and allegations that Russia was backing its two separatist provinces, which Moscow denies.

The withdrawal of troops is a very sensitive point for Georgia, which in its eagerness to shake off Russia's influence secured a long-sought deal with Moscow last year that committed Russia to gradually pull out its equipment and troops and close two military bases in the Caucasus nation by 2008.

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Gen. Alexander Baranov, the commander of the North Caucasus military district, told reporters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don that Moscow was suspending planning for further withdrawals.

Baranov drew a direct connection between the decision and the heightening tension, and blamed the Georgians.

"Why should we run ahead of the steam engine that they themselves have placed in our path?" he asked.

Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said the suspension meant nothing and claimed to be unconcerned.

"This process is inevitable," he told independent Imedi television late Saturday. "The Russian military will withdraw from Georgia according to the two sides."

Several dozen Russian diplomats and their families, laden with suitcases and boxes, boarded Russian planes on Saturday to leave Georgia over alleged threats to their security.

"After the series of incidents and provocations that we have seen we are simply afraid," said Mikhail Svirin, the embassy spokesman. "If I, being a normal man, can respond adequately to a provocation, I am not sure that my wife can, let alone our employees' children."

But Baranov said there would be no widescale evacuation of military families.

"That would be foreseen in case of the threat of an outbreak of military action. Now no such threat exists," said Gen. Andrei Popov, commander of Russian military forces in Georgia.

The conflict has thrown a spotlight on the main point of contention between Moscow and Tbilisi — Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Tbilisi accuses Moscow of sponsoring, while Moscow claims Tbilisi is preparing to take them by force.

Georgian Defense Minister Okruashvili has said the arrest of the alleged spies on Wednesday achieved two goals: eliminating spies in his country and showing the world the conflict over Abkhazia was not an ethnic problem.

"We achieved a political goal, too, which we have not been able to achieve for the past three years. The whole world ... saw that the Abkhazia conflict and the conflict over South Ossetia are not ethnic conflicts, but are conflicts between Georgia and Russia," he said.

He said Georgia wanted to show Abkhazia how much better its life could be "if we find a common language." But he said Moscow should not be part of resolving the issue.

"When we say that the (Russian) peacekeepers have to leave this territory, that automatically means that Russia should leave ... the negotiation process. We don't need any mediator like Russia," he said, alluding to Georgia's belief that the peacekeepers have supported the separatists.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has charged that the arrests were aimed at pushing Russian troops out of Georgia so the government could seize control of the separatist provinces by force.