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Russia-Georgia dispute escalates

Last week, Georgia fired at an intruding Russian fighter, it claimed. The incident is the latest in a murky air war that both sides say is an intentional effort to spoil ties.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 2007



MOSCOW

Just as relations between Russia and the post-Soviet nation of Georgia were improving from their nadir last year, a bizarre phantom air war this month has unleashed mutually hostile rhetoric and escalated tensions.

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For almost a month, Georgia has complained that Russian fighter jets have made incursions into its airspace. Most recently, it said that its forces fired on an intruding Russian plane near the breakaway republic of Abkhazia last week. The republic, a Russian protectorate claimed by Georgia under international law, is a point of contention between the two countries.

But a top Russian general scoffed that his Georgian colleagues must be "hallucinating" since, he insisted, no Russian warplanes have flown anywhere near Georgia. Kremlin officials have repeatedly suggested that Georgian hard-liners, seeking a pretext for military action against Abkhazia and another rebel statelet, South Ossetia, may be "fabricating" the incidents.

Russia and Georgia have been at odds for years over Moscow's aid to both Abkhazia and another breakaway republic, South Ossetia, but relations turned toxic after President Mikhael Saakashvili came to power in 2004's "Rose Revolution," vowing to reunite his fractured country and bring it into NATO before his term of office ends in 2009.

Now, officials on both sides charge the other of intentional provocation designed to exacerbate tensions.

"Both sides are making claims that cannot be reconciled, yet the evidence on the ground remains puzzling," says Alexander Golts, a military expert with the Moscow-based online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "It's hard to say, at this point, who is to blame. But there's no doubt that all this shouting is making things much worse."

The current crisis and its roots

Last week, Georgia said that its forces fired upon a Russian "military jet" and may have shot it down. Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kuteliya told journalists it was the ninth such Russian incursion in the past three months – a claim the Kremlin denied.

But on Saturday, Anatoly Zaitsev, military chief of the pro-Russian Abkhazia army, offered a bizarre confirmation that something odd had indeed occurred.

He told journalists that Abkhazian soldiers on Wednesday saw an unidentified aircraft flying "from the direction of Turkey," trailing smoke, which subsequently crashed in a remote mountain gorge. Abkhazia has complained that Georgian military aircraft violated its airspace at least twice last week.

"It was most likely a bomber or reconnaissance aircraft that was damaged for reasons that are so far unclear," he said. He added that it was not a Russian or Georgian plane, but one that might have come from "a NATO country."

The current crisis began on Aug. 6, when Georgia claims two Russian Su-24 fighter-bombers penetrated deep into Georgian territory.

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