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Georgia Shoots Down Russian Warplane Over Abkhazia : Soviet aftermath: Accounts differ as to what the jet fighter was doing over the breakaway province. The pilot was killed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Georgian army shot down a Russian warplane Friday over the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia, killing the pilot and drawing Russia deeper into an ethnic conflict beyond its southern border.

Georgia, a former Soviet republic now independent of Moscow, said the SU-27 jet fighter was on a pre-dawn bombing mission against Georgian ground forces. Russia denied the charge.

It was the first downing of a Russian aircraft in seven months of fighting between the Georgian army and Abkhazian separatists for control of the province on the coast of the Black Sea, where Russia maintains installations inherited from the Soviet Red Army.

The SU-27, which had taken off from a Russian base in Abkhazia, crashed in a forest near Sukhumi, the Georgian-controlled provincial capital, after being hit by a surface-to-air missile and exploding. Russian television showed the pilot’s body in the wreckage.

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Georgia’s Defense Ministry said the pilot, identified as Russian Air Force Maj. Vaklav A. Shipko, had been bombing distant Georgian targets and was returning to base when his jet was hit.

The Russian air force said Shipko’s jet and another SU-27 had been sent up to prevent an attack by two Georgian warplanes on a Russian paratroop base near the rebel capital of Gudauta. It said the Russian jets were not carrying missiles or bombs that could have been used against ground targets.

Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze, wearing a camouflage uniform, went to the crash scene and warned Russia against further meddling beyond its borders.

“I would like to address the soldiers and officers of Russia, instructed to carry out combat missions in Georgia, that they are being deceived,” he said in filmed remarks shown on Russian television. “Let them not forget what happened in Afghanistan.”

While officially professing neutrality in the fighting and urging the two sides to make peace, Russia gives indirect support to the separatists, who favor independence from Georgia under Russian military protection.

Claiming self-defense, Russian officers have in the past admitted sending jets to bomb Georgian gunners who target their bases. The officers say privately that their mission in Abkhazia is to resist Georgian pressure to abandon Russian bases on the Black Sea.

Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister who returned after the Soviet Union’s breakup to lead his native republic, sent his army last August to crush an independence movement in the rebellious province. The 90,000 Abkhazians, a minority in the province whose population exceeds 400,000, speak a different language from the Georgians and resist assimilation.

But the Abkhazians quickly formed an army, fought the Georgians to a stalemate that has effectively partitioned the province and, last Tuesday, launched a major but unsuccessful offensive to recapture the provincial capital. Georgian officials reported 165 deaths in three days of fighting, pushing the seven-month death toll above 1,200.

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The offensive prompted Shevardnadze to accuse Moscow for the first time of waging undeclared war on Georgia.

Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, a veteran of the Soviet military defeat in Afghanistan, said Shevardnadze was “trying to smear the armed forces of Russia” to make up for his own army’s embarrassing setbacks. He even accused Georgia of painting Russian insignia on its warplanes and bombing its own people.


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