TBILISI, Georgia – Georgian aviation officials postponed the landing of two Russian planes on Monday after President Mikhail Saakashvili ordered the capital's airport not to receive cargo planes carrying Georgian refugees.
The planes were due to have taken nearly 270 Russian citizens out of Georgia on Monday, but aviation officials said the flights would be delayed "for technical reasons" until Tuesday.
The Tbilisi airport said in a press release that the delay was due in part to the repaving of the runways.
Georgia recently arrested four Russian military officers, accusing them of espionage, and Moscow retaliated with a transport blockade that banned all flights to Georgia — except for Ministry of Emergency Situations planes, which have been used to transport Georgian deportees and bring home Russian citizens stranded in Georgia.
Russian officials have said the sanctions will continue until Georgia ends what Moscow calls its "anti-Russian" behavior, but they have not indicated what specific actions they want Tbilisi to take.
Russia had been due to send 150 more alleged illegal migrants home to Georgia on Monday, but Saakashvili said the capital's airport would no longer accept the cargo planes.
"We are doing everything possible so that our citizens' rights are not violated. They should fly in normal planes," Saakashvili told independent Rustavi-2 late Sunday. "Let the people who make these (deportation) decisions fly in cattle cars."
A spokesman for Russia's Federal Migration Service denied that use of the cargo planes violated Georgians' rights because they were outfitted with seats and other amenities. The IL-76 cargo planes "meet all the requirements for such transportation," the Interfax news agency quoted Konstantin Poltoranin as saying.
"We have used the same planes to fly back Russian nationals from Georgia. We have used them many times to evacuate people from other regions," he said.
In spite of his evident anger over Russia's deportation of Georgian citizens, Saakashvili sent the first signal of willingness to negotiate following the latest outbreak of tensions.
"We are obviously always ready for dialogue. I am ready to meet my Russian counterpart anytime he wants to," Saakashvili told Associated Press Television News late Sunday.
At the same time, Saakashvili said he was considering bringing a case against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights on the violations of Georgian citizens' rights.
"We are ready for bilateral dialogue with Russians, but we really hope these outrageous violations of human rights of individuals based on their ethnicity, which are totally unacceptable in the 21st century, will cease," he said.
Russian-Georgian ties have been strained since Saakashvili came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution, vowing to take the country out of Russia's orbit and join NATO. Georgia also accuses Moscow of backing two breakaway Georgian provinces — an allegation Russia denies.
In addition to the transport and postal blockade and the deportation of alleged illegal migrants, Russian authorities also have raided and closed down a number of Georgian-owned firms, alleging financial improprieties or even ties with the Georgian mafia.