Russian peacekeepers beaten in Georgia's separatist province

An official in one of Georgia's unrecognized breakaway provinces claimed Friday that Georgian security officers beat a group of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone, as relations between the two ex-Soviet neighbors plummeted to a new low. Georgian peacekeepers denied the claim.

The statements come a day after Russia recalled its ambassador, announced the evacuation of its diplomats and complained to the United Nations after Georgia detained five Russian officers on spying charges. Bilateral ties long have been strained over Georgia's bid to join NATO and Moscow's close links to Georgia's breakaway provinces.

Irina Gagloyeva, spokeswoman for the internationally unrecognized South Ossetian government said masked Georgian officers stopped a car carrying four Russian peacekeepers, a woman and a child in the village of Avnevi Thursday night, shot at the car's wheels, ordered the men out and beat them. One of the peacekeepers sustained a fractured skull, she said.

After being released, the peacekeepers drove to a nearby checkpoint maintained by Georgian police, who told them that the masked soldiers were elite Defense Ministry troops, Gagloyeva said.

Paata Bedianashvili, spokesman for Georgian peacekeepers in the region, denied that. "It's all rubbish, nothing like that took place," he said.

Bedianashvili said that Georgian police did stop a car containing Russian peacekeepers, but merely checked their documents and let them go.

Georgian authorities' detention of Russian officers on Wednesday prompted angry statements from Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov, who denounced Georgia as a "bandit" state.

Moscow decided to launch a partial evacuation of Russian personnel and their families "in connection with a growing threat to their security." It said government planes would begin taking Russians out of the country on Friday.

The Foreign Ministry alerted all Russians to refrain from traveling to Georgia, and the embassy in Tbilisi stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens, reports AP.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili denounced the Russian moves as hysteria. "Russian personnel and their families face absolutely no threat here," he said.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have become increasingly tense since Saakashvili came to power following Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, pledging to move the country out of Russia's orbit.

Tbilisi officials have accused Russia of backing separatists in Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and making efforts to undermine Saakashvili's government allegations Russia has denied.