Russia Closes Embassy in Georgia; Freezes Visas

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Russia closed its embassy in Georgia and halted consular operations after Georgia severed diplomatic ties following last month's war, the Russian consul said Wednesday.

A U.S. Navy ship loaded with humanitarian aid, meanwhile, steamed through the Dardanelles on its way to Georgia — a day after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin complained that too many NATO ships were sailing the Black Sea and promised a Russian response.

The diplomatic suspension means no new applications for Russian entry visas will be accepted, a blow to Georgians who have relatives in Russia or other ties there. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians live in Russia, and many ethnic Georgians in Russia are Russian citizens.

"A break-off of diplomatic ties is an action that has a price," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in Moscow. He said the ministry is considering other measures.

The diplomatic break follows a five-day war and Moscow's recognition of two separatist Georgia regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent nations. The conflict has brought tensions between Moscow and the West to their highest level since the end of the Soviet Union.

The United States has already sent two military ships bearing aid to Georgia, and the USS Mount Whitney steamed through the Dardanelles early Wednesday and was expected to pass through the Bosporus later in the day. The two Turkish-controlled straits link the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.

One of the other U.S. ships, the USS McFaul, sailed back through the straits toward the Mediterranean late Monday.

"We don't understand what American ships are doing on the Georgian shores, but this is a question of taste, it's a decision by our American colleagues," Putin said Tuesday. "The second question is why the humanitarian aid is being delivered on naval vessels armed with the newest rocket systems."

Russia's reaction to NATO ships "will be calm, without any sort of hysteria. But of course, there will be an answer," Interfax quoted Putin as saying during a visit to Uzbekistan.

Russia closed its Embassy in Tbilisi on Tuesday after receiving formal notice from Georgia that it was severing diplomatic ties, Russian Consul Valery Vasilyev told The Associated Press. He said employees took down Russian flags and other symbols that adorned the building.

The Georgian Embassy in Moscow closed Wednesday, according to its charge d'affaires, Givi Shugarov.

"Yesterday a note was passed to the Russian side in Tbilisi that Georgia, simply put, is breaking off all diplomatic relations with Russia," Shugarov said. He said all embassy officials would leave by the end of September.

The Georgian consulate in Moscow will remain open for now, Shugarov said. When Georgia announced it was severing ties, it said that consular relations would continue — apparently an effort to punish Russia without hurting Georgians with ties there.

But Vasilyev said the Russian consulate in Tbilisi was suspending operations pending instructions from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Existing visa applications will be processed but new ones will not be accepted, he said. Without visas, Georgians cannot travel to Russia unless they have dual citizenship.

The conflict erupted Aug. 7 after Georgia launched an assault on the Russian-backed South Ossetia province in a bid to bring it under central government control.

Russian forces swiftly repelled the offensive and drove deep into Georgia, whose staunchly pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili has angered Moscow by seeking NATO membership for the Caucasus nation.

Georgia straddles a major westward route for oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea and has become the focus of a struggle for regional clout between Russia and the West.

Vice President Dick Cheney is due to arrive in Georgia on Thursday from Azerbaijan as part of a swing through Russia's southern neighbors to emphasize U.S. interest and support.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament appealed to Russia to "honor all its commitments" to withdraw its troops under a cease-fire agreement with Georgia.

The EU parliament also condemned alleged looting carried out by Russian forces and linked militia groups in Georgia, and it criticized the use of cluster bombs by both Russian and Georgian military officials.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is scheduled to visit Georgia Sept. 15-16, said a spokeswoman for Saakashvili's office, Nato Partskhvaladze.

NATO declined to offer Georgia a road map for membership at an April summit, in part because of concerns about angering Russia, but the alliance assured Georgia it will eventually join.