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Georgia, Russia Continue Bickering Over Missile Incident

Marat Kulakhmetov (ITAR-TASS) August 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The commander of Russian peacekeeping forces in Georgia says Russian troops have not been able to identify the missile that landed in Georgian territory on August 6 near the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Commander Marat Kulakhmetov said Georgian authorities destroyed key parts of the missile, making its identification very difficult.

According to Georgian officials, the missile was dropped on August 6 near a village close the Georgian capital and just a few kilometers from the Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia. The missile left a deep crater in a cornfield but did not explode.

Tbilisi says the missile was a Russian-made Raduga Kh-58, and claims it was launched from one of two Russian jets that had infiltrated Georgian air space.

Russia Denies Accusations

Russia's military chief of staff, General Yury Baluyevsky, today accused Georgia of fabricating the reports. He said Tbilisi's claims were "a provocation against Russia."

He added that Tbilisi is "in a state of confusion" over the future of its rebel territories, saying an international decision to grant independence to the Serbian province of Kosovo could result in Georgia losing its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both enjoy Russia's support.

Georgian officials continue to describe the alleged air strike as an "act of aggression" by Russia.

Georgia Seeks International Support

Tbilisi is seeking an emergency UN Security Council session to discuss the incident, and has called on governments worldwide to condemn Russia's alleged role.

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili also invited foreign specialists to help investigate the incident.

"We are creating an international group of experts and call on all partner countries to send their representatives -- be they military experts, aviation experts, or other specialists -- to take part in confirming, in duly analyzing the data collected by the Georgian side," said Bezhuashvili.

Georgia's Foreign Ministry said on August 8 that its radar data show that a Russian jet flew from Russia into Georgia and launched the missile.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was more cautious in its assessment. It said that its mission in Georgia confirmed the country's airspace was violated but that it was unable to identify either the kind of aircraft involved or the missile.

History Of Similar Incidents

The U.S. State Department has condemned what it described as a "rocket attack," but also stopped short of placing the blame on Russia. Spokesman Sean McCormack, however, noted that Russia has a history of air strikes on Georgia.

"In the past, the Russian government has conducted some aerial raids that have resulted in bombs being dropped or shots being fired in Georgian territory, and we've spoken to those particular issues," said McCormack. "So we've talked to Georgian authorities about this. We've talked to Russian authorities about this."

Moscow and Tbilisi were involved in a similar dispute in March, when Tbilisi claimed Russian helicopters fired on Georgia's Kodori Gorge, on the fringes of Abkhazia. A report by the UN Observer Mission in Georgia in July concluded that it was not clear who fired the shots.

The current dispute brings ties between the two former Soviet neighbors to a new low.

Relations have been strained since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2004 and pledged to steer the country toward the West, away from Moscow's orbit.

Georgia has since consistently accused Moscow of seeking to destabilize the country by backing separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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