Accessibility links

Breaking News

Georgia: West Urges Restraint As Tempers Flare In Moscow, Tbilisi Over Plane Incident

Military observers inspect debris purportedly from an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane (ITAR-TASS) The war of words between Russia and Georgia about the apparent downing of an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane over the separatist region of Abkhazia has prompted calls for caution from both the United States and the United Nations.

Georgia's Defense Ministry released a video on April 21 purportedly shot by a remote-controlled camera inside the downed drone. (See video at right.) The ministry claims the video shows a Russian fighter jet approaching the plane. The jet fires a missile, and the camera footage promptly cuts off.

In televised remarks, a visibly angry Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said he had called Russian President Vladimir Putin and "categorically" demanded that Russia put a stop to "aggressive attacks on Georgia."

"This action is a severe violation of the UN Charter," Saakashvili said. "This is an act of international aggression. This is a bombing of the territory of a sovereign state by another state without being provoked, without any legal basis, by rudely trampling down all international norms."

The Kremlin has denied any role in the downing of the plane. Russian Air Force officials said none of its military planes were near southwestern Russia on that day. In his telephone conversation with Saakashvili, Putin reportedly expressed "disbelief" the Georgian side had made flights "for military aims" over the conflict zone.

'Incontrovertible Proof'?

Colonel David Nairashvili, who commands Georgia's Air Force, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the video offers incontrovertible evidence that a Russian jet was involved.

"On the video, one can clearly see that it was a MiG-29, which took off from Gudauta" -- a Soviet-era air base located in Abkhazia -- "then approached our aircraft, fired an air-to-air rocket, downed it, and flew back into Russian territory," he said, adding that the unmanned aircraft belonged to the Georgian Interior Ministry and was performing a planned flight over Georgian territory.

Georgian defense officials say neither Abkhaz forces nor Russian peacekeepers based in the region have the equipment to shoot down aircraft themselves.

UN spokeswoman Michele Montas says the UN's monitoring mission in Georgia has no evidence to substantiate claims by both Abkhaz and Georgian officials of illicit military buildup in the separatist conflict zone. Such allegations, Montas warned on April 21, have the potential to further destabilize the situation. She called on both sides to exercise restraint.

"The UN mission says that the media reports and resulting official statements have led to an increase in tensions and a possibility of a serious incident between the sides," she said. "Yesterday's [April 20] reported shooting down of an unmanned aerial vehicle in the zone of conflict is a case in point."

Members of the UN Security Council are expected to hold a special meeting on April 23 with Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze to discuss the crisis.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey expressed support for Georgia's territorial integrity, and urged both sides to seek a peaceful solution.

"We're very concerned about this, and as you know there have been a number of provocative incidents that have occurred in the past," Casey said. "We would hate to see a repeat of that or anything that would be increasing tensions between two neighbors who we would hope would be able to have good relations with one another."

Volley Of Accusations

The reported downing of the Georgian drone prompted a volley of accusations and claims from all sides. De facto authorities in Abkhazia originally claimed responsibility and displayed debris from the drone, which they said was found on Abkhaz territory.

Georgian officials first denied a plane had been downed, but later reversed course, accusing Russia of being behind the shooting.

The plane incident follows a rocky week in which Moscow took concrete steps to intensify its relationship with Abkhazia and Georgia's second breakaway region, South Ossetia. Russia, which had already offered citizenship to residents in the two territories, last week announced it would begin to recognize "legal entities" in the regions and tighten links with businesses and organizations there.

The move infuriated Georgia, which accused the Kremlin of seeking to forcibly annex its territory. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared de facto independence after the Soviet collapse, but Tbilisi considers both regions part of its sovereign territory.

The issue stirs strong nationalist sentiments in many Georgians. For the government, the preservation of Georgia's territorial integrity is also seen as essential to Tbilisi's bid to join NATO. Russia makes no secret of its objection to Georgia's NATO aspirations. Some observers have speculated Moscow's recent flirtation with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are meant to hurt Georgia's chances by introducing an active, and messy, territorial dispute.

Oleg Mironov, first deputy speaker of the Russian State Duma, told lawmakers on April 22 that Georgia itself is to blame for stirring up trouble.

"Georgia's recent actions with regard to the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as its persistent desire to find its place in NATO, when combined, are not helpful in improving Russian-Georgian relations," Mironov said. "This is the background against which all subsequent events are unfolding. As for the rhetoric, which is quite typical of the Georgian leadership, it is very belligerent, but it absolutely does not match the weight category of these [Georgian] politicians."

'Doubtful And Nonsensical'

Russia maintains a peacekeeping force in Abkhazia, whose presence has long been a sore subject with Tbilisi. Givi Targamadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the latest incident proves it's time for the peacekeepers to be replaced by an international team with less of a political agenda.

"Russia today gives us an excellent chance to show to the world -- rather, it itself proves it to the world -- that it represents an aggressive side in this conflict, and therefore its claims to peacekeeping are, at the very least, doubtful and nonsensical," he said. "Therefore, with this, we should be able to really start addressing the question of [their] replacement."

The latest controversy is reminiscent of an incident last year in which Georgia accused two Russian fighter jets of violating its airspace and firing a missile that landed on the edge of a Georgian-controlled village near the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone. Moscow denied the claims, although several international investigative teams ultimately backed Georgia's allegations.

Drone Downed

Drone Downed
Georgia's Interior Ministry has released this video, which it says shows a Russian fighter jet firing a missile at an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance drone.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.