Wed, May 28, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Report fuels Tbilisi-Moscow tension

THE GUARDIAN , MOSCOW

Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow increased on Monday after a UN report concluded that the Russian air force had shot down an unmanned Georgian spy drone over the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

The UN’s mission in Georgia said a Russian fighter jet had downed the spy plane on April 30 — despite vehement denials by Moscow. Based on video footage, witnesses and radar records, the UN report backs up Georgia’s claim that Russia is giving military aid to Abkhazia, a separatist Black Sea region that broke away from Georgia after the 1992-1993 war.

But the UN also criticizes Tbilisi for violating the terms of a 1994 ceasefire. Georgia has sent at least three spy drones over Abkhazia since March, the report said, despite a ban on surveillance aircraft.

Dramatic video footage from the drone shows a jet fighter swooping into view, before firing a short-range missile. The video then goes blank. The report said the fighter was a MiG-29 or Su-27, neither of which Abkhazia owns.

The jet then flew off into Russian airspace, the report added.

“Absent of compelling evidence to the contrary, this leads to the conclusion that the aircraft belonged to the Russian air force,” said the report, which was posted on the UN mission in Georgia’s Web site.

Abkhazian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Shamba on Monday accused the UN of bias and insisted that Abkhaz forces shot down the drone.

“We don’t believe in this report,” he said. “The report isn’t independent ... the only important bit is that it proves Georgia violates our territorial integrity and the ceasefire agreement.”

When asked about the report stating that the jet had a distinctive twin-finned tail while all of Abkhazia’s tiny fleet of L-39 jets have single tails, Shamba said: “All this stuff about double fins is irrelevant.”

Tensions between Georgia and Russia have escalated over the past two months after then Russian president Vladimir Putin boosted ties with Abkhazia by recognizing it as a legal entity. His move appeared designed to punish Georgia for its recent attempts to join NATO.

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