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Military cordon around Russian HQ in Tbilisi removed

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A cordon of Georgian troops set up last week around the Russian headquarters in Tbilisi has been lifted, the commander of Russian troops in the South Caucasus said Sunday.
TBILISI, October 1 (RIA Novosti) - A cordon of Georgian troops set up last week around the Russian headquarters in Tbilisi has been lifted, the commander of Russian troops in the South Caucasus said Sunday.

Georgian troops had been surrounding the building since Wednesday, demanding that Russia hand over a high-ranking military official on spying allegations, following the arrests of five other Russian officers.

Major General Andrei Popov said, "The military cordon around the Group of Russian Forces in the South Caucasus building was removed at 9:00 [5:00 a.m. GMT]." He added that only a few Georgian Interior Ministry staff and military police were remaining, for document checking.

Tensions have mounted between the ex-Soviet neighbors since Georgian authorities arrested the five Russian servicemen on September 27, subsequently releasing one of them, and charged the other four with espionage. Tbilisi also demanded that Russia hand over another officer, Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Pichugin, who they believed to be in the Russian headquarters.

However, the Russian military said Saturday there were no officers wanted by Georgia in the building.

The Georgian government announced Friday that the Russian officers had been charged and remanded in custody for two months.

The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the spying allegations as unsubstantiated, and senior politicians, including Defense Minster Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, launched virulent criticism against Tbilisi's actions.

Russia recalled its ambassador in Georgia following the arrests, and evacuated most of its embassy staff in Tbilisi and their families.

The latest diplomatic clash between the countries has served to further aggravate relations, which have been volatile over the past few years due partly to Russia's involvement in Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russian peacekeeping forces have been stationed since bloody conflicts that took place in the early 1990s.

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