Russian Troops on High Alert

ReutersRussian diplomats and their families wait to board an Emergency Situations Ministry airplane in Tbilisi on Friday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- The commander of Russian military forces in Georgia said Sunday that his troops had been put on high alert and ordered to shoot to kill to defend their bases, as the two countries faced their worst bilateral crisis in years over the arrest of Russian officers on spying charges.

General Andrei Popov said Russian law authorized the military to use force to defend their bases abroad from aggression.

"We are ready to thwart any possible attempts to penetrate our facilities using all means, including shoot-to-kill," he told reporters.

Moscow, infuriated by Georgia's arrest of four Russian officers on Wednesday, recalled its ambassador, evacuated its citizens and denounced Georgia as a "bandit" state. Ties between Tbilisi and Moscow had already been strained over Georgia's bid to join NATO, and allegations that Russia was backing two Georgian separatist provinces. Moscow denies that claim.

President Vladimir Putin said Sunday in his first public comments on the crisis that the Georgian leadership had been encouraged by unidentified foreign sponsors, and likened the arrests to the repressions of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's henchman, Lavrenty Beria.

"They clearly want to pinch Russia in the most painful way, to provoke it," Putin said in televised remarks at the start of a session of the United Nations Security Council.

"These people think that under the protection of their foreign sponsors they can feel comfortable and secure. Is it really so?" Putin questioned, inviting top officials to offer their opinions.

Along with some 2,500 peacekeepers in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has between 3,000 and 4,000 troops at two military bases in Georgia that it pledged to withdraw by the end of 2008 under a deal signed last year.

General Alexander Baranov, commander of the North Caucasus military district, said Saturday that Moscow was suspending plans for further withdrawals because of the officers' arrests.

But Putin on Sunday ordered the Defense Ministry to continue the troop withdrawal as planned, the Kremlin said.

Putin directed that the pullout of Russian troops from their bases in Georgia must continue as planned "despite the current situation," his spokesman Alexei Gromov said in a statement.

Georgia's Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said Sunday that Georgia expected Russia to honor the pullout agreement. He said the Russian military already had met its obligations on the number of weapons it was to pull out from the two bases this year.

Bezhuashvili accused Russia of trying to punish Georgia for its independent course. "An attempt to scare the Georgian people and the authorities will not succeed," he said. "Nobody will force us to turn away from our path."

Bezhuashvili reaffirmed Sunday that Georgia wanted Russia to end its involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has played an official mediation role and deployed its peacekeepers to both regions, which have had de facto independence without international recognition since breaking away from Georgia in bloody wars in the early 1990s. "Russia's open support for separatists clearly shows that Russia isn't a neutral mediator," Bezhuashvili said. "Russia's peacekeeping operation and its dominant role in settling the conflicts can't continue in the same mode."

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking at the United Nations last month, accused Russia of "gangster occupation" of both provinces. Russia has dismissed the accusations as lies and said that the peacekeepers' withdrawal was impossible without the consent of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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

Russia's tense relations with Georgia have worsened since Saakashvili came to power following Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, pledging to move the country out of Russia's orbit, bring breakaway provinces back into fold and join NATO in 2008.

Bezhuashvili said Saakashvili in recent days had spoken to a large number of foreign leaders and top officials who had voiced their support.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana spoke to Saakashvili on Saturday, cautioning against the risk of further escalation and encouraging the Georgian president to "find an early solution to the dispute with Russia," Solana's spokeswoman Christina Gallach said in a statement Sunday.

Russia has evacuated all but two staff members and guards from its embassy in Georgia.

Georgian police have maintained their cordons around the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi in a bid to detain another Russian officer suspected of spying, whom Russia refused to hand over, although the number of police has been reduced.