Putin steps up rhetoric against 'terrorist' Georgia

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin has accused Georgia of "state terrorism" and "hostage-taking" in a statement over a spy scandal between the two countries.

Mr Putin's broadside suggested a tough Russian response to the worsening crisis between the two former Soviet states which was sparked last week by Georgia's arrest of four Russian officers on accusations of spying and plotting to undermine the country's pro-Western government.

"As a result of his meeting with permanent security council members, the President termed the actions of Georgia's leadership as an act of state terrorism with hostage-taking," a statement on the presidential website said. Georgia's Foreign Ministry reacted by calling statements from Moscow "an explicit threat to use a military force".

Mr Putin had already provoked the wrath of Tblisi yesterday when he compared the recent behaviour of Georgia with that of Josef Stalin's most sadistic secret policemen.

The arrests have sparked an international crisis with tensions heightened by the fact that Russia has some 2,000 troops stationed on Georgian soil, a hangover from the Soviet era.

The Russian commander responsible for Moscow's two military bases in Georgia said he had given his troops an order to shoot to kill if it became necessary to defend them.

The four men Georgia accuses of spying have been ordered to be detained for two months pending investigations despite demands from Moscow that they be set free. Georgia insists it caught the four men red-handed and broadcast what it said was cast iron documentary proof of their guilt.

However, Russia has called the allegations outrageous and Mr Putin likened Georgia's behaviour to that of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's chief of secret police for much of the 1930s.

"Georgia's actions are the political legacy of Lavrenty Beria inside the country and within the international arena," Mr Putin said. The insults were calculated and could not have been more forceful as Beria, like Stalin, was Georgian by birth and has gone down in history as one of the most sadistic and violent KGB men.

Putin's insults followed a similar snub from the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, who said the current climate in Georgia reminded him of 1937, the peak of Stalin's bloody purges and show trials.

Russia also announced that it was suspending the planned withdrawal of its troops from Georgian soil over the spy row. The troops were supposed to leave in 2008. However, the Russian statement was dismissed out of hand by Georgia's Defence Minister, Irakli Okruashvili, who said Russian troops would be forced to leave his country regardless. "This process is inevitable," he said.

Georgia accused Russia of fanning separatist sentiments over the weekend, alleging that Mr Putin had held secret meetings with the leaders of two pro-Moscow breakaway republics that Tbilisi has long argued should be part of Georgia proper.