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Georgia: Officials Say Russian Helicopters Again Bomb Its Territory

The threat that the conflict in Chechnya could spill into other parts of the Caucasus may be growing more serious. An area of Georgia near the breakaway Russian republic was reportedly bombed today, and Georgian officials say the attack came from Russian forces

Prague, 17 November (RFE/RL) - Georgian officials today said Russian helicopter gunships bombed an area inside Georgia close to the border with Chechnya.

Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lordkipanidze said officials in the area told him there were no casualties. Lordkipanidze also said that Tbilisi has sent a formal note of protest to the Russian government.

"I consider this incident very important as an example of what can result from irresponsibility. And I am sure that this event will damage, first of all, Russia, in the view of the OSCE summit in Istanbul [which begins tomorrow]. The international community is aware of this incursion."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin confirmed that there was what he called a "violation" of Georgian air space. But he declined to say whether Russian forces dropped any bombs. The Russian Defense Ministry refused to comment.

Today's incident marks the second time that Russia has been accused of dropping bombs on Georgian territory in the past three months. The first incident occurred in August. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov apologized for that attack, calling it a mistake.

Russian officials have charged that Georgia allows Chechen fighters and arms to cross through Georgia on the way to Chechnya. They have also said Chechen fighters want to establish a government-in-exile in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Georgian officials have denied those accusations.

RFE/RL regional analyst Liz Fuller says Georgia is likely to portray the bombing as a deliberate attack.

"I imagine that the Georgian authorities will present this episode as deliberate aggression against Georgia in an attempt at intimidation because Georgia has been seen to be too accomodating to the Chechens -- in terms of allowing in refugees, and also in terms of the fact that the Georgians, as I see it, have been playing up to the Chechens over the past two years since (Aslan) Maskhadov was elected Chechen president; possibly purely in order to annoy Moscow."

Fuller notes that Russia's recent accusations against Georgia are the latest volley in a verbal war that has been going on for some time. She says Russia may be waging a disinformation campaign to provide an excuse to move against Georgia.

"Russian accusations against Georgia should be seen in the wider context of a worsening of bilateral relations that has been going on for several years. What lies at the bottom of this is the fact that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is unequivocally oriented toward the West. He wants Georgia to become, ultimately, a NATO member and possibly a member of the European Union. Moscow does not want to see this happen."

At the OSCE summit in Istanbul tomorrow, Moscow is expected to face increased Western pressure to negotiate with Chechnya.