Russian Troops on High Alert
By Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili
TBILISI, Georgia -- The commander of Russian military forces in Georgia said Sunday that his troops had been put on high alert and ordered to shoot to kill to defend their bases, as the two countries faced their worst bilateral crisis in years over the arrest of Russian officers on spying charges.
General Andrei Popov said Russian law authorized the military to use force to defend their bases abroad from aggression.
"We are ready to thwart any possible attempts to penetrate our facilities using all means, including shoot-to-kill," he told reporters.
Moscow, infuriated by Georgia's arrest of four Russian officers on Wednesday, recalled its ambassador, evacuated its citizens and denounced Georgia as a "bandit" state. Ties between Tbilisi and Moscow had already been strained over Georgia's bid to join NATO, and allegations that Russia was backing two Georgian separatist provinces. Moscow denies that claim.
President Vladimir Putin said Sunday in his first public comments on the crisis that the Georgian leadership had been encouraged by unidentified foreign sponsors, and likened the arrests to the repressions of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's henchman, Lavrenty Beria.
"They clearly want to pinch Russia in the most painful way, to provoke it," Putin said in televised remarks at the start of a session of the United Nations Security Council.
"These people think that under the protection of their foreign sponsors they can feel comfortable and secure. Is it really so?" Putin questioned, inviting top officials to offer their opinions.
Along with some 2,500 peacekeepers in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has between 3,000 and 4,000 troops at two military bases in Georgia that it pledged to withdraw by the end of 2008 under a deal signed last year.
General Alexander Baranov, commander of the North Caucasus military district, said Saturday that Moscow was suspending plans for further withdrawals because of the officers' arrests.
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