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Georgia Detains Dozen Interior Ministry 'Cyber Spies'

TBILISI - Georgia has detained 11 senior police and Tbilisi's deputy mayor for alleged cyber spying on opposition leaders, in the latest arrest of officials who served under President Mikheil Saakashvili, prosecutors said Friday.

The officials are accused of using a malware to access computers of political parties opposed to Saakashvili, whose long dominant party was defeated in the October parliamentary elections by a coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Former deputy interior minister and current vice mayor of Tbilisi Shota Khizanishvili, an ally of Mikheil Saakashvili, and 11 serving interior ministry officials are suspected of the illegal surveillance of opposition leaders, chief prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili told journalists.

Using the malware, the officials have "been accessing computers of different political parties' and religious organisations' representatives and bugging them," he said.

The arrests follow the prosecutions on abuse of power charges of former defence minister Bacho Akhalaia and army chief of staff Giorgi Kalandadze, the first major cases against top officials from the Saakashvili government.

The police suspects are also accused of recording the telephone conversations of leaders of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition and releasing them through the Internet in a move aimed at "exciting popular distrust" towards the billionaire's bloc before the polls, Kbilashvili said.

The recordings of the Georgian Dream leaders insulting each other were initially said to have been uploaded to YouTube by Ivanishvili's bodyguard in September.

But Kbilashvili said the bodyguard was blackmailed and bribed by police to state that the recordings were made and released by him.

Saakashvili's allies have dismissed the allegations as politically motivated.

"A fierce campaign of political persecution is ongoing," said a senior lawmaker from Saakashvili's party, Giorgi Baramidze.

Khizanishvili is seen as a right-hand man of the former premier and interior minister Vano Merabishvili and was appointed deputy Tbilisi mayor after the October elections.

Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava said the arrest "shows that a dictatorship is being established in Georgia."

All arrested officials deny any wrongdoing.

But Ivanishvili said Friday that the detentions were not motivated by political revenge.

"It is in no way a political persecution or selective justice," he told journalists.

The detentions have however raised concerns among Georgia's Western allies.

A US State Department official on Friday said he hoped the new government would respect the rule of law.

"We know it's sometimes difficult to work with your political adversaries but I stress the absolute importance going forward of transparency and due process and rule of law," US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon told journalists during a visit to Tbilisi.

Earlier this week, top EU and NATO officials also voiced concerns during Ivanishvili's first foreign trip as prime minister to Brussels.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday he was "extremely concerned about the development we have seen since (the elections), not least related to recent arrests of political opponents in Georgia."

European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso meanwhile urged Ivanishvili to avoid "selective justice". Ivanishvili's administration has vowed to tackle allegations of wrongdoing under the Saakashvili government, which dominated Georgia for nine years, but has denied being motivated by revenge.

Ivanishvili's bloc formed Georgia's new cabinet after securing a parliamentary majority in October elections, but Saakashvili, who stays in office until October 2013, still holds significant power.

The election was widely praised as the first peaceful transfer of power since Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.

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