Mon, Aug 27, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Abkhazia confirms plane crash

UNKNOWN ORIGIN The chief of the region's general staff Anatoly Zaitsev said that radars had spotted an unidentified aircraft over the Black Sea on Wednesday night

AFP , MOSCOW

Georgia's rebel province of Abkhazia on Saturday confirmed reports that a plane went down in the region this week, but claimed it was a US spy plane or Georgian aircraft, Russian news agencies reported, while a Russian defense analyst warned that Georgia's accusations against Russia could stretch Moscow's patience too far and provoke a conflict.

Abkhaz officials were at odds over the origins of the plane that went down, with its top military official saying it may have been a US spy plane while the foreign minister said the plane was probably Georgian.

Georgia said it believed a plane had crashed in a Georgian-controlled part of Abkhazia, the Kodori Gorge, after its forces opened fire on an aircraft that had violated its airspace on Wednesday. Georgia said it believed the plane was Russian.

Speaking in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi on Saturday, the chief of the region's general staff Anatoly Zaitsev told reporters that radars had spotted an unidentified aircraft over the Black Sea in the vicinity of Abkhazia on Wednesday night. The plane went down trailing smoke, he said.

"There are no aircraft of this type in the Georgian air force," he said. "Chances are it was an American reconnaissance plane."

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, however, told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency that the plane was probably Georgian.

"Georgia has repeatedly violated Abkhaz airspace," he said. "Since Russia vigorously denies that Russian planes were flying in this area ... we can only realistically conclude that it was a Georgian plane."

Meanwhile, Georgia's attempts to score points in a tense diplomatic stand-off with Russia are aimed at accelerating its bid to join NATO but could exhaust Moscow's patience, observers said.

"There is a threat" that rising tensions between the two former Soviet republics could provoke a confrontation, said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian defense analyst.

"No one wants a Georgian-Russian confrontation.... The world doesn't want to provoke Russia," Felgenhauer said.

NATO's reaction to the finding of the alleged Russian missile near Tbilisi on Aug. 6 was measured. A NATO spokesman said a few days after the incident that the alliance would be in close contact with Georgia over the incident.

"Georgia risks ... not benefiting from complete credibility at a time when it will need Western partners," Salome Zurabishvili, a Georgian opposition leader and the country's former foreign minister, said earlier.

Russia for its part has been making life hard for Georgia in a bid to rein in pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been actively supported by Washington since coming to power in 2004.

During a bout of extremely cold winter weather last year, Russian gas supplies to Georgia were cut off for prolonged repairs on a pipeline.

A few months later, Russia banned the import of wine and mineral water from Georgia.

Then, last September, Georgia arrested four Russian officers on charges of spying. This prompted Russia to suspend all direct transport and postal links, as well as to deport hundreds of Georgian immigrants from Russia.

Russia has also given political and economic backing to Abkhazia, a separatist region on the shores of the Black Sea in northwest Georgia that broke off in a fierce conflict in the early 1990s.

South Ossetia, another breakaway region, also enjoys Moscow's backing.

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