Sun, Aug 26, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Georgia fires at suspected Russian plane: official

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MOSCOW

Georgian police forces fired machine guns at an unidentified military aircraft that violated a remote area of Georgian airspace on Wednesday, a senior Georgian official said early yesterday.

Shortly after the shooting, residents of an isolated mountain village reported hearing an explosion and seeing a raging forest fire, the official said.

The official, Shota Utiashvili, head of the analysis department for Georgia's Interior Ministry, said that the nationality and type of plane were unclear, but that he presumed it was Russian or piloted by Russian-backed separatists.

"In theory, it could be either Russian or the Abkhaz," he said by telephone.

Utiashvili's comments, which followed a diplomatic dispute over a previous Georgian accusation that a Russian military plane had dropped a missile near another Georgian village, drew sharp and swift criticism from Moscow.

Alexander Drobyshevsky, a Russian air force spokesman, labeled the accusation "one more provocative piece of information directed against us," the Interfax news agency reported, and insisted no Russian aircraft had been in Georgian airspace or were missing.

"All force aircraft are currently on airfields and the pilots are having a rest," he said.

Utiashvili said an unidentified military jet had flown south to north through the Kodori Gorge.

It crossed into Georgia from Abkhazia, a territory controlled by separatists, and headed toward the Russian border at the Caucasus ridge when a police unit fired on it, he said.

He said it was not yet clear whether plane had gone down, adding that the explosion and forest fire reported by Omarishara residents were perhaps caused by the plane firing ordnance.

Abkhazia also denied having a plane in Georgian airspace, and said that it had fired at a Georgian plane that had intruded on its forces' military exercises.

Utiashvili said that a fire was still burning in the area where the explosion was heard, and that Georgian forces hoped to visit the charred area yesterday to search for signs of aviation ordnance or a downed plane.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have soured since late 2003, when a bloodless revolution in Georgia toppled a corrupt post-Soviet government.

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