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GEORGIA-RUSSIA

Spy Charges Fuel Georgian Tensions

The Federal Security Service said Friday that its agents had caught a Georgian spy and accused Tbilisi of aiding rebels in the North Caucasus in an episode likely to heighten tensions between the countries.

On Sunday, the two sides continued to snipe at each other as Georgia accused Russia of deploying heavy weaponry alongside its peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia and briefly detained a group of Russian soldiers in the breakaway region.

Unidentified FSB officials said a Chechen man working for Georgian intelligence had been giving money to fighters in the unstable North Caucasus, news agencies reported Friday.

"This confirms the participation of Georgian special forces in subversive terrorist activities in the North Caucasus," an FSB source said, Interfax reported.

The source said the agent had admitted that he was working for Georgian security services.

He identified the man as Ramzan Turkoshvili, an ethnic Chechen born in the Georgian Soviet Republic in 1974 who holds Russian citizenship.

"Turkoshvili was tasked with finding armed bands in Ingushetia and other regions of the Southern Federal District to finance and organize armed resistance," the source said, Interfax reported.

The source said Turkoshvili was paid in dollars.

A Georgian government spokeswoman dismissed the accusations Friday as "another provocation from the Russia side."

"We don't finance rebels in any country," the spokeswoman said by telephone from Tbilisi.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili also denied the accusations, describing them as "mere disinformation meant to discredit Georgia," Interfax reported.

The Georgian Interior Ministry is in charge of the country's intelligence service.

The latest accusations came at a time when the countries are locked in a wrangle over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and as Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili arrived in Moscow on Friday for a two-day visit to try to find a peaceful solution to the problem.

Underlining the difficulty of his task, three bomb blasts hit Georgian-controlled areas in South Ossetia on Friday, one of which seriously injured a Georgian police officer, The Associated Press reported.

Yakobashvili met with Foreign Ministry special envoys Valery Kenyakin and Yury Popov.

"We have reached agreement to continue the bilateral consultations, with the aim of overcoming the current differences in our positions concerning the problem," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued after the meeting.

Yakobashvili also held a news conference in Moscow after the meeting to reaffirm Georgia's positions on issues like its intent to block Russia's accession to the WTO.

Despite the diplomatic efforts, the two sides continued to snipe at each other Sunday after an incident in which Georgia briefly detained a group of Russian peacekeepers.

Georgia said it had detained the five peacekeepers along the administrative border with Abkhazia after their armored personnel carrier crashed into a Georgian woman's car in the town of Zugdidi, AP reported.

Georgia's Rustavi-2 television station said the peacekeepers had been drunk and had entered Zugdidi with a column of six armored personnel carriers and 42 trucks loaded with ammunition.

A Russian official said Georgian authorities had staged the car accident as a "provocation," denied that the detained soldiers had been drunk and described the operation near Zugdidi as routine.

"The peacekeepers' commander regards this incident as yet another provocation," Alexander Diordiyev, a spokesman for the Russian-led peacekeeping force, told Interfax.

Georgia's Interior Ministry also released video footage that it said showed Russia deploying heavy weaponry in Abkhazia, which would violate the peacekeepers' mandate, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

The footage, apparently taken from a spy plane, showed vehicles parked in rows but gave no other indication about their type or location.

Relations between Russia and Georgia worsened early last month after Georgia accused the Russian military of shooting down an unmanned spy plane over Abkhazia, a charge Moscow has denied. Several unmanned craft have been shot down since.

Moscow and Tbilisi accuse each other of preparing for aggression in Abkhazia, and there is serious concern that tensions are so high that a small incident could touch off renewed fighting in the region that has had de facto independence since a secessionist war in the 1990s.

Abkhazia's separatist leader, Sergei Bagapsh, called Wednesday for Russia to sign a military treaty with the region, and Russia's Air Force chief said Thursday that he favored the establishment of a military base there.

Russia has boosted the numbers of the peacekeeping troops that it maintains in the region, saying it is trying to protect Russian citizens from alleged Georgian plans to seize control of Abkhazia by force, while Georgia says Russia is preparing to annex the region.

Russia has also dramatically increased support for Abkhazia's separatist government, lifting trade sanctions and firming up legal ties with the separatists.

Defense analysts commented in particular on the timing of the espionage charges, saying it was common practice for the FSB to leak information that it wanted made public to news agencies.

"The FSB always finds the convenient moment to arrest spies or find people who want to prepare terrorist attacks," said Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

"I don't believe it," said Alexei Malashenko, senior analyst on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "We have been listening for years to stories about different spies: Georgian, Polish, French and so on. This is just a typical form of Soviet propaganda."

Malashenko said evidence of any linkage to separatist movements in Chechnya would come at an inconvenient time for Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is looking to take his country into both the European Union and NATO, attempts that have angered Russia, and any link to terrorist activities would hurt the country's chances.

According to Golts, Georgia's intention to join NATO is the main reason Russia has decided to "start tensions in Abkhazia and Ossetia." He pointed out that strains have intensified since Georgia expressed its desire to join the alliance at a NATO summit in Bucharest in early April.

In the case of the latest spy allegations, the FSB source said Turkoshvili was recruited by two Georgian security service agents, with the help of "Zemlikhan Khangoshvili, the head of terrorist groups that are now hiding in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia," Interfax reported.

The source said Khangoshvili's group was involved in a 2004 attack in the republic of Ingushetia, adjacent to Chechnya, that left nearly 100 people dead, many of them police officers.

Golts, however, said he had never heard the name Khangoshvili.

The FSB source claimed that Georgian intelligence paid Turkoshvili to establish contacts with militants in the North Caucasus and help Georgia finance them, ease their movement and gather information about potential recruits among Russian servicemen and officials.

He also repeated old accusations that a large number of Chechen militants, including international terrorists, have found refuge in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and that Tbilisi was turning a blind eye to the problem.

(The Moscow Times 19.v.08)

 
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