Georgia stepped up a war of words with Russia, accusing Moscow of committing "an unprovoked act of aggression" by shooting down a Georgian unmanned spy plane over the Caucasus nation's rebel Abkhazia region.
Georgia on Monday accused Russia of committing "an unprovoked act of aggression" after alleging that a Russian fighter jet shot down an unmanned Georgian aircraft over the weekend.
Moscow immediately denied the claim and Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern to his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili about Georgian military flights over the separatist region of Abkhazia.
In a nationally televised address, Saakashvili accused Russia of "an unprovoked act of aggression against the sovereign territory of Georgia."
He said Georgia, a former Soviet republic, had verifiable evidence that a Russian MiG-29 had shot down a Georgian reconnaissance drone over Georgian territory on Sunday.
Georgia's allegation came amid spiraling tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi over Russia's support for rebel separatists in Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States was "very concerned" and a senior US official said Washington believed Georgia's claims.
"I think at the moment, it looks pretty clear that what the Georgians are saying is true," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Saakashvili said he had called Putin and during a "difficult conversation" demanded that Russia end its support for Georgian separatists and "stop attacks on Georgia."
Russian Air Force Commander Alexander Drobyshevsky denied the attack, telling the Interfax news agency: "There were no flights on April 20, when the Georgian aircraft was gunned down. Air force pilots had a day off."
The Kremlin said that during his conversation with Saakashvili, Putin had "expressed his perplexity over the fact that the Georgian side is organising military flights over the conflict zone."
The Kremlin statement did not explicitly deny the incident had taken place.
Georgia initially denied reports Sunday that rebel forces in its breakaway region of Abkhazia had shot down an unmanned drone, with Georgian officials saying the country did not possess the type of plane. Abkhaz officials previously claimed to have shot down a Georgian reconnaissance drone on March 18.
But in a statement released late Monday, the Georgian government said that the Russian plane had "blasted a Georgian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from Georgian airspace" while it was "conducting routine surveillance above the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia."
"Radar tracking and video transmitted from the UAV in the moments before its destruction confirm the details of the attack," the statement said.
The statement said radar showed the MiG-29 had taken off from the Gudauta military base in Abkhazia, which Georgia claims is illegally occupied by Russian forces.
"In the video, the fighter jet turns toward the UAV, approaches, and fires an air-to-air missile. At 9:54:31, the UAV transmission abruptly ended, indicating its destruction. The silhouette of the aircraft clearly shows the typical twin-tail arrangement of a MiG-29 'fulcrum' fighter jet, an aircraft neither the Abkhaz rebels nor the Georgian military possess," the statement said.
According to radar data, the plane then turned north and flew into Russian airspace, it said.
Putin issued a decree last week promising the separatists heightened support -- a move condemned by Georgia as an attempt at the "de facto annexation" of the two territories -- after Western nations recognized Kosovo's February declaration of independence from Serbia, which Moscow opposes.
The United States and NATO called on Russia to reverse the move.
The two regions broke away from Georgian control during wars in the 1990s following the country's independence, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Saakashvili has vowed to regain control over the two regions and has long accused the Kremlin of stirring up separatism in order to weaken Georgia and stymie its efforts to join the NATO alliance.
Date created : 2008-04-22