Russia's military chief yesterday accused Georgia of fabricating a report of a Russian missile attack, as Moscow and its small westward-looking neighbor continued angry bickering over the incident that heightened bilateral tensions.
Georgia said radar data proved Russian jets violated its airspace on Monday and fired a missile aiming at a Georgian radar.
The missile, which did not explode, landed near a village in the northwestern Gori region near Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia patrolled by Russian peacekeepers.
General Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of Russia's military General Staff, said on Wednesday that Georgia concocted the incident in order to foment tensions.
"I'm convinced that it was a provocation by Georgia ... a provocation against the Russian peacekeepers and Russia as a whole," Baluyevsky said on a visit to China, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
In Tbilisi, Levan Nikoleishvili, Georgia's first deputy defense minister, said that Baluyevsky's statement was "sheer nonsense."
Tbilisi has accused Moscow of trying to destabilize the country and of backing separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that broke away from Georgia during wars in the 1990s.
President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose efforts to integrate into the West and join NATO have irked Moscow, has vowed to return the regions to central government control.
Georgia's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that records from radars compatible with NATO standards showed that a Russian Su-24 jet had flown from Russia into Georgia and launched a missile. Investigators identified the weapon as a Russian-made Raduga Kh-58 missile, designed to hit radars, the ministry said. The missile, code-named AS-11 by NATO, carried a 140kg warhead.
Igor Khvorov, a lieutenant-general and the chief of staff for the Russian air force staff, reaffirmed yesterday that the Russian aircraft had not conducted the raid. "It's a political invention," he said at a news conference.
Georgian officials said the nation has no Su-24 jets or missiles of that type.
The Russian missile missed its target because the Georgian military switched off the radar after it had detected the intrusion and the missile's launch, Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Zurab Pochkua said yesterday on Rustavi-2 TV.
"We switched the radar off, so that the missile wouldn't home in on it," he said.
Georgia's Foreign Ministry called the incident "undisguised aggression" and sought an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
The US State Department on Wednesday condemned what it described as a "rocket attack" without naming a responsible party, and praised Georgia's "restraint in the face of this air attack."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said its mission in Georgia had confirmed that Georgian airspace was violated, but could not say how many and what kind of aircraft were involved. The mission also said it could not identify the missile.
Relations between Russia and Georgia have been strained since Saakashvili was elected president in early 2004 and made clear his intentions to move the former Soviet republic closer to the West.
Georgia has accused Russia of backing separatists; Moscow, in turn, has accused Tbilisi of fomenting tensions in the rebel provinces. Georgia has repeatedly accused Russia of violating its airspace -- claims Russia has invariably denied.
Earlier this year, Georgia said Russian helicopters fired on its territory in the Kodori Gorge, a volatile area on the fringes of Abkhazia. The two countries exchanged similarly fraught accusations at the time, but a subsequent report by the UN observer mission in Georgia said it was not clear who had fired at Georgian territory.
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