Nato Chikovani, a spokeswoman for the Georgian foreign ministry, said: "A special plane will land at Tbilisi airport with about 200 Georgian citizens expelled from Russia."

 

A Russian law enforcement official was quoted by ITAR-TASS news agency as saying that 136 Georgians have been expelled, explaining that the immigrants had been detained over a period of several months.

 

Links severed

 

Georgia angered Moscow by arresting four Russian army officers last week on spying charges. The men were later released, but Russia still seeks to bring its southern neighbour to heel.

 

Russia has cut transport and postal links with Georgia and stopped issuing visas to Georgians. It has also banned major Georgian exports to Russia and raided Georgian businesses in Moscow.

 

"Like dogs that have broken loose, Russian bureaucrats of all ranks have rushed to fight a new 'criminal nationality'"

Demis Polandov, commentator

Friday's deportations followed an order given on Wednesday by Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, to tighten controls on illegal migrants.

 

Up to a million Georgians live and work in Russia, and their earnings are important to Georgia's economy.

 

A deputy head of the education department in the Moscow government confirmed media reports that police had contacted schools to look for Georgian children whose parents might be illegal immigrants.

 

Mikhail Saakashvili, president of Georgia, has dismissed the economic sanctions, pledging to continue his drive for Nato membership.

 

Saakashvili received an extra boost on Friday as early returns from local elections in Georgia indicated that he had won a convincing victory over the opposition.

 

'Ethnic cleansing'

 

But the rising tension between Georgia and Russia has alarmed Europe and the United States.

 

Diplomats fear that the problem could spiral out of control, leading to the risk of armed clashes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that broke free from Georgian control in the early 1990s and favour closer links with Russia.

 

Yuri Chaika, Russia's prosecutor-general, said that all the actions were "being carried out within the framework of the law", but selective law enforcement is a long-standing Kremlin tactic used against opponents.

 

"An aggressive anti-Georgian hysteria is gaining momentum," wrote Demis Polandov, a liberal commentator, in the daily Gazeta.

 

"Like dogs that have broken loose, Russian bureaucrats of all ranks have rushed to fight a new 'criminal nationality'. Searches in restaurants, the closure of casinos, the threat of deportation hanging over hundreds of thousands of people - if this is not ethnic cleansing, then I do not know what it is."