Georgia says Russia downed spy plane

The incident contributes to ongoing regional tensions between Russia and former Soviet territories that favor Western ties and NATO membership.

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Diplomatic tensions have flared in the Caucases over the fate of a Georgian spy plane allegedly shot down Sunday as it flew over a breakaway pro-Russian region. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who has cultivated military ties with the US and sought to join NATO, accuses Russia of shooting down the unmanned drone. The United Nations Security Council is due to discuss the incident on Wednesday.

The incident has drawn attention to friction between Russia and former Soviet territories that favor closer Western engagement, including NATO membership. It also underscores lingering tensions over unrecognized breakaway states in the region following Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, which Russia strongly opposed.

Earlier this month, a NATO summit in Romania rejected a US proposal to fast-track Ukrainian and Georgian membership, but agreed to review their applications at a future meeting. The Christian Science Monitor reported that some Eastern European countries at the summit were critical of NATO's "appeasement" of a belligerent Russia, which is carving out its spheres of influence against NATO encroachment.

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Bloomberg reports that the downed spy plane was flying over Abkhazia, a state seeking independence that fought a civil war against Georgia in the 1990s and maintains close ties with Moscow. Mr. Saakashvili said Monday he had telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin and asked him to end attacks on Georgian territory and to stop his backing for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway state.

Russia has denied that it shot down the spy plane. Last week, Mr. Putin ordered his government to protect the "rights, freedoms, and lawful interests" of Russians living in the two disputed territories. Georgia views this as a step toward annexation, and some Western governments have criticized the move. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday she had called her Russian counterpart to express concern over tensions with Georgia and said the US was "absolutely committed" to Georgia's territorial integrity, Xinhua reported.

A video released Monday by Georgia, purportedly a live feed from the downed plane, shows a twin-tailed fighter aircraft firing on it, reports The New York Times. The attacking aircraft closely resembles a Russian MIG-29 fighter jet, which Georgian officials say is proof of Russian involvement. No other air forces in the region that planes. Russia's Air Force said that an Abkhaz plane had shot down the drone. However, the plane on the video, which did not have visible markings, didn't appear to match that used by Abkhaz forces.

The footage can be seen on the BBC's website here.

In a statement, the Russian government said Putin had expressed his "bewilderment" that Georgia was deploying a spy plane over Abkhazia, says the Associated Press. The Kremlin said the spy plane had violated a 1994 cease-fire between Georgia and Abkhazia and was a "destabilizing factor" that had escalated tensions there.

Last week, London's Guardian newspaper reported on Abkhazia about fears of a wider conflict provoked by Russia's embrace of the breakaway republic on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Putin has stopped short of formally recognizing Abkhazia's independence, but his order is seen as a provocative step that follows Georgia's failed attempt to join NATO. It also takes its cue from Kosovo's declaration of independence in February, which Abkhazia has cited as a precedent for its own sovereignty. Russia accuses the US of hypocrisy in recognizing Kosovo but blocking pro-Russian states like Abkhazia.

In an editorial published before the spy plane incident, The Messenger, an English-language daily in Tblisi, Georgia, said Russia had been emboldened by NATO's lack of strong support for Georgian membership. It said the international community must put pressure on Russia to stop its "annexation of Georgian territory," since Georgia is too small to act alone.

Euroasianet, a website funded by the Open Society Institute, reports from Tblisi that many officials believe Moscow is trying to thwart Georgia's bid to join NATO. Some experts argue that Russia is trying to provoke Georgia into taking "impulsive action that can torpedo Georgia's NATO prospects" and counsel caution in responding to Russian moves.

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