Putin Denounces Georgia's "State Terrorism"

MOSCOW, Russia -- The war of words between Russia and Georgia escalated sharply with President Vladimir Putin accusing the Georgian leadership of "state terrorism" and acting like Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a Security Council meeting at the residence of Novo Ogaryovo outside Moscow.

And in a remark apparently aimed at the United States and the NATO alliance, Putin also warned of "foreign sponsors" that he suggested were encouraging Tbilisi to provoke Moscow.

The president's angry denouncement underlined a deepening crisis in bilateral relations following Georgia's arrest of four Russian soldiers on Wednesday on spying charges.

Speaking at an emergency meeting of Russia's security council held at his residence in the chic Moscow suburb of Novo Ogarevo, Putin said he considered the arrests "an act of state terrorism with the taking of hostages," according to a Kremlin statement.

Earlier Sunday, in remarks broadcast on Russian television, he likened Georgia's leadership to the executor of Stalin's murderous purges.

The spying arrests are "a sign of the succession of Lavrent Beria both inside the country and in the international arena," Putin said, referring to the Soviet secret police chief who oversaw the 1930s Stalinist purges that killed hundreds of thousands.

"In spite of the fact that Russia is consistently fulfilling all the agreements we have on removing our armed forces from (Georgia)... our military officers were snatched and thrown in jail," Putin said.

"These people think that in being under the protection of their foreign sponsors, they can feel comfortable and safe. Is that in fact the case?"

Putin also ordered his forces to resume their withdrawal from Georgia after -- an operation that had been been interrupted on Saturday due to safety concerns.

Russia evacuated virtually all its diplomatic staff from its embassy in Tbilisi over the weekend.

Putin's evocation of Beria, who was born in Georgia's Abkhazia region, echoed comments by numerous Russian politicians and commentators as relations with Tbilisi have declined in recent months.

Beria was head of the NKVD, the Stalin-era Soviet secret police force that later became the KGB, from 1938 to 1946.

Putin was himself head of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, before entering Russian politics in 1999.

Earlier Sunday, the head of the Russian military in the Caucasus said that Russia's regional forces, including in Georgia, were "at heightened military readiness."

"If any actions are taken against Russian troops, we are ready to take any action, including the use of deadly force," Major General Andrei Popov said in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Meanwhile, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili Saakashvili told an audience in Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi on Sunday not to fear the Russian military.

Speaking of planned Russian naval training in the area, Saakashvili said: "Our response will be the legal process, the supremacy of law, and a stable country that continues to live, develop and assert itself in the modern world," according to a transcript on the foreign ministry's web site.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been on the decline since mass uprisings in 2003 known as the Rose Revolution brought the pro-Western Saakashvili to power.

Saakashvili has pushed his country toward NATO accession over protests from Moscow, which considers the Caucasus to be its traditional sphere of influence.

The two countries have also clashed over Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow supports and which Sakaashvili has vowed to restore control over.

Numerous international leaders called Saakashvili over the weekend to urge a diplomatic solution to the crisis, including Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Polish President President Lech Kaczynski, Lithuanian President Vladas Adamkus.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also called the Georgian president Saturday and offered to facilitate contacts between the two sides.

Source: AFP