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Tbilisi Investigating Reports Of Plane Downed In Kodori

By Salome Asatiani and Jeffrey Donovan (RFE/RL) August 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions between Russia and Georgia have edged up following claims by Tbilisi that it shot at, and may have brought down, an aircraft it believed was a Russian military plane flying over Georgian airspace.

Georgia's Interior Ministry has dispatched investigators to the Kodori Gorge to examine witness reports that a plane believed to be violating Georgian airspace was shot down.

Shots Fired

Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili, who spoke to RFE/RL from a site in Kodori, confirmed "warning shots" were fired at a plane that entered Georgia's airspace on the evening of August 21. He could not confirm, however, whether the plane was hit.

Utiashvili had earlier told AP that "a Russian plane was fired on over Upper Abkhazia," and was quoted as saying the incident occurred on August 22.

The Kodori Gorge is a difficult-to-reach, volatile area on the fringes of the pro-Russian breakaway region of Abkhazia. It is only partially under central Georgian government control, in a region known as Upper Abkhazia.

Utiashvili told RFE/RL that Georgian Interior Ministry officials are now questioning local residents claiming to have heard an explosion and seen smoke at what they believed was the crash site.

"Many local residents in Kodori Gorge saw the plane, and some of them let us know that they also heard sound of an explosion -- which, they think, could have been of the plane exploding," Utiashvili said. "We have not discovered any part of a plane, therefore we can't confirm this explosion. We're examining the site where traces [of the alleged explosion] are believed to be located."

Reuters today quoted Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, as confirming today that an unidentified plane went down over its territory this week. He said the plane came from the Black Sea and went down in the mountains of Upper Abkhazia.

"We believe it was a Georgian plane," Shamba told the news agency. "It has in the past repeatedly violated our airspace. It went down by itself, no one downed it."

Under a UN-brokered cease-fire agreement, Georgian Defense Ministry forces and heavy weaponry cannot be deployed in the Kodori Gorge. Interior Ministry forces are not prohibited, however.

Russian Plane?

Georgian officials have alleged that it was a Russian plane that entered Georgian airspace. Russian Air Force spokesman Aleksandr Drobyshevsky has dismissed the claim as the latest "provocation" against Russia.

"I would like to state officially that this is just the latest provocation being directed against us," Drobyshevsky said. "Aircraft belonging to the Russian Air Force did not conduct flights along the Georgian border. Georgian airspace was not violated."

It is unclear why Tbilisi waited until today to send out a team to investigate an incident believed to have happened four days ago.

On August 22, Georgia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement published on its official website that a fighter jet flying from Russia twice violated Georgian airspace on August 21.

Utiashvili said today that Tbilisi is focusing on just one incursion.

"At this moment, we are investigating one plane," Utiashvil said. "It came in on Tuesday night (August 21), at 22.24 p.m. This we can confirm, people saw it, and it also was caught on a radar. But then it disappeared from the radar."

The Interior Ministry spokesman went on to stress it was unclear whether the plane had in fact been shot down.

"Only warning shots were fired from machine guns," Utiashvili said. "After this, the local population heard a sound of an explosion, however it is still not known whether this sound was really of an explosion, or, perhaps, it was a sound of lightning. Therefore we cannot confirm the fact that the plane was shot down here. Right now investigation is being conducted -- local residents are being questioned about what they saw, and so on."

Regardless, the issue is likely to add to existing hostilities between Tbilisi and Moscow. Irakli Alasania, the Georgian ambassador to the UN, on August 22 said his country was determined to resist Russia's tactics.

"This act of aggression was an attempt to halt the development of democracy and the spread of Western democratic values, not only in Georgia but throughout the broader region," Alasania said. "Such tactics have been used in the past, and the international community has shown its will not to tolerate them. We must not bend now."

Number Of Incidents

Earlier this month, on August 6, Georgia alleged that a Russian plane dropped a 4.8-meter Kh-58 antiradar missile in a field outside a village near Georgia's border with its breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The missile did not explode and caused no injuries.

Russia rejected those claims as "politically motivated" fabrications. Two teams of military experts from Western countries have given preliminary backing to Georgia's claims, however.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that Georgia's missile claims are a ploy to undermine relations with Moscow and draw closer to NATO.

Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kuteliya said this week that his country's radars will soon be integrated into NATO's radar system. He said recent alleged violations of Georgian airspace by Russian warplanes had speeded up the effort.