Wed, Aug 08, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Georgia claims Russia fired missile at village

AGENCIES , TSITELUBANI, GEORGIA

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia yesterday of trying to provoke panic in his country with a suspected rocket strike and demanded an official explanation from Moscow.

"All this provocation is aimed at stirring up panic to weaken the stability of Georgia and to change the country's policies," Saakashvili said during a visit to the site of the alleged rocket strike. "We are waiting for an official explanation from Russia."

"This is not only a problem for Georgia, but for European security," he said.

Georgia says that a Russian plane fired a rocket, which did not explode, at the outskirts of the village of Tsitelubani on Monday. Moscow has repeatedly denied involvement.

Tsitelubani is at the edge of the conflict zone around South Ossetia, a separatist region mostly controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

Russia's ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Tbilisi where he was handed a note of protest.

The Russian air force said it had made no sorties over the area and said Tbilisi had produced no proof of its involvement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia "categorically" denied the accusation.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, however, said radar had picked up two Su-34 jets flying from Russia on Monday evening. He said one had fired an air-to-surface missile.

Tsitelubani resident Dinar Kaziyev said he had seen the raid.

"Two planes flew over at a high altitude, then one of them dived and dropped something," he said.

Tbilisi's relations with Russia have become increasingly tense since Saakashvili's rise to power in the 2003 "Rose Revolution" and his bid to bring his country into NATO.

Georgia frequently accuses Russian forces of meddling in conflicts with separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, but an air raid would represent an unusually serious incident.

Some analysts speculate that a row with Georgia could play into the hands of cliques inside the Kremlin jostling for position ahead of next year's presidential election, when Russian President Vladimir Putin is to step down.

But Russian officials have said in the past that Georgia stages "provocations" to distract attention from its government's failings.

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