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Georgia Arrests Russian Spies Operating Before War

Georgian Soldiers with Tanks, Georgian Flag

Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Georgian authorities said they broke up a Russian spy ring that started collecting information on the country's military before the 2008 war in which the Russian army routed Georgian forces.

Thirteen people, including four Russians and nine Georgians, remain in custody after being arrested last month on suspicion of delivering information to the intelligence unit of Russia's Defense Ministry, known as the GRU, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said today at a briefing in Tbilisi, the capital. Two others were released after plea bargains.
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"All this was going on for years," Utiashvili said. "Not only did they monitor secret military information but they continued to do so during the war. They wanted to know how many weapons we had, where we had them, and planted agents everywhere to seek information."

Russian forces defeated Georgia a five-day war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia in August 1998. Russia later recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries in a move condemned by the U.S. and many European countries. Russia has agreed to defend both regions' borders.

The U.S. in June arrested 10 "deep-cover" spies who had sought to infiltrate U.S. policy-making circles since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The suspects pleaded guilty July 8 and were deported as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia.

Infiltrating Ring

The Georgia arrests were made after authorities planted a former Soviet intelligence officer inside the spy ring in Russia, Utiashvili said, without elaborating. The Interior Ministry today released video of the suspects confessing their roles in the espionage and describing how the ring operated.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Georgia staged the arrest as a "provocation" to attract attention before the North American Treaty Organization summit later this month in Lisbon and a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Astana, Kazakhstan, Dec. 1-2. The CSTO includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

"Another obvious goal is to use a bogus Russian threat to maintain anti-Russian hysteria in the country," the ministry said in a statement. President Mikheil Saakashvili's government suffers from "chronic anti-Russian spy mania."

This is the second time Georgia, a former Soviet republic that gained independence in 1991, has detained suspected Russian spies. In September 2006, Georgia arrested four Russians and more than 10 Georgians on suspicion of spying. In that case, the Russian citizens were handed over to authorities in Moscow.

No Russian Request

Georgia hasn't received any official request from Russia to hand over the suspects in the current case, Utiashvili said.

Prosecutors are now handling the investigation, which will determine how the suspects are handled, including whether to send them to Russia as Russian citizens, said Khatuna Iosava, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office in Tbilisi.

In January 2009 former Georgian diplomat Vakhtang Maisaia was sentenced to 20 years in prison for spying on behalf of unidentified foreign countries during the war. Saakashvili said at the time that Maisaia provided "hourly information" that aided Georgia's enemies, though he didn't name Russia.

Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said Russia continues to use "shameless" methods to spy on Georgia, mainly to control the flow of arms into the country.

"As if Georgia had atomic bombs or other serious equipment," he said before the arrests were announced. "They simply want to know kind of additional weapons are coming to Georgia so they can be prepared for a possible attack."

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