Georgian authorities detain 5 Russian military officers accused of spying, Moscow protests

Georgian authorities have detained five Russian military officers and 12 others on spying charges, and Interior Ministry forces continued surrounding Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi Wednesday to demand the handover of another Russian.

Moscow angrily protested the move, which highlighted escalating tensions between two ex-Soviet neighbors, demanding that the officers be released and accused Tbilisi of provocations.

"We have demanded the immediate release of our citizens and will firmly press for it," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised remarks.

"The Georgian side consistently fails to fulfill its obligations, each time creating difficulties with issuing visas, with organizing provocations and now already with arrests," a visibly irritated Lavrov said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the charges against the Russian officers "marasmatic and trumped-up," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying. Ivanov claimed Tbilisi was striving "to provoke Russia into an inadequate response," but promised that Moscow's response would be "adequate and reasonable."

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said Wednesday four Russian military intelligence officers were detained in the Georgian capital and the Black Sea port of Batumi on charges of espionage. A fifth officer was detained Wednesday, the Ministry said on its Web site. Merabishvili said the dozen Georgian citizens who were detained were part of the same "very dangerous" spy chain.

He said the ring was led by a Russian agent who staged a February 2005 mine explosion that killed three police officers in the town of Gori.

Merabishvili said the suspects had been involved in espionage for several years. Georgian authorities moved to detain the suspects to thwart a "serious provocation" they had prepared, Merabishvili said.

"They showed a particular interest in Georgia's defense capability, its programs of integration into NATO, energy security, political parties and organizations" as well as information about the nation's military forces and infrastructure, Merabishvili added.

Interior Ministry forces surrounded the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi demanding the handover of another Russian officer accused of spying, Merabishvili said. Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili said they would keep vigil there until Russia turned over the suspect, reports AP.

Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned Georgia's ambassador to Moscow, handing him a note protesting the detention and demanding the officers' immediate release. The ministry denounced the Georgian allegations as unfounded and said the officers' detention "underlined the Georgian leadership's anti-Russian course."