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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Score One for Mighty Georgia

The Associated Press reports that Georgia has successfully driven Russia's military out of its capital:

TBILISI, Georgia: Russia handed over its military base in Tbilisi to Georgia on Saturday, a key step toward the full withdrawal of Russian forces from Moscow's small southern neighbor.

Russian military officials and their Georgian counterparts signed an official protocol transferring the garrison to Georgian control.

"This is a historic moment as we will no longer have a Russian military headquarters in the capital," said Georgia's deputy defense minister Levan Nikoleishvili.

"This is a victory which our people have all worked toward," he told The Associated Press.

The last of 340 Russian military personnel vacated the garrison Saturday, leaving the Georgian capital free of Russia's regional military headquarters for the first time in more than 200 years.

Fifteen officers from the Tbilisi garrison will remain in Georgia until the closure of two Russian bases, one in the southern town of Akhalkalaki and the other in the Black Sea port of Batumi. They will be stationed in Batumi.

Georgia and Russia agreed last year, after months of contentious negotiations, that Russian forces would pull out of the two bases, which are scheduled to be closed by October 2008.

Relations between the two countries have plummeted in recent months as Georgia has accused Russia of supporting separatists while Russia fears Georgia is moving closer to the West.

Georgian authorities briefly detained four Russian military officers on spying charges in September, and Moscow retaliated with a transport and postal blockade and a crackdown on Georgian migrants in Russia.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said that the decision to speed up the withdrawal of the Tbilisi base was made because of tensions with Georgia.

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