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Georgia says Russia dropped a missile

Times Staff Writer

Georgia accused Russia on Tuesday of sending two fighter jets into its airspace and dropping a missile near a village. Moscow denied involvement and charged that Georgian authorities staged the incident to gain an edge in their conflict with Russia.

Televised footage from an area about 40 miles west of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, showed a deep 2-foot-wide hole in the ground that authorities said was caused by an unexploded missile dropped Monday evening. They displayed metal pieces that looked like missile parts.

“This provocation was meant to cause panic, disrupt the peace in Georgia and ultimately change the country’s political course,” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told reporters. “We will sustain this trial and trials a hundred times greater for the freedom and independence of this country.”

Since taking office three years ago, Saakashvili has sought to steer the former Soviet state on a pro-Western path, and relations with Russia have deteriorated sharply.

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Georgia, with a population of 4.5 million, hopes to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as quickly as possible. The country is a transit corridor for a pipeline opened two years ago that carries oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.

Georgian authorities insisted that the aircraft involved in the incident flew into Georgia from southern Russia.

“Radar data confirm that aircraft took off from an air base in the town of Mozdok on the territory of the [Russian region of] North Ossetia,” the Georgian Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry described the alleged attack as “an open act of aggression.”

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The Russian defense and foreign ministries denied Georgia’s allegations.

The Russian Foreign Ministry suggested that Georgia staged the incident to undermine planned talks concerning the role of Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both separatist regions are under the de facto control of authorities claiming independence from Georgia and backed by Russian troops, which took up peacekeeping duties after Georgia was torn by civil wars in the 1990s.

“Any time there are signs a consensus is being approached, provocations are organized to prove the ineffectiveness of the earlier established negotiating and peacekeeping mechanisms involving Russia,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. It noted that Georgia also possesses Sukhoi fighter jets, the kind of plane that allegedly dropped the missile.

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Salome Zourabichvili, a former Georgian foreign minister under Saakashvili who is now an opposition leader, said she believed it was possible that Georgian authorities staged the incident.

“I do not rule out that the bombing was a spectacle staged by Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili,” Zourabichvili told Georgian radio Imedi. “Of course Russia has an aggressive attitude toward us, but such actions would not suit it given the upcoming Olympic Games” in 2014 in the nearby Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Since his election in 2004 after a nonviolent people’s revolt dubbed the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has made reasserting central authority over breakaway regions a key goal of his administration.

Using military threats and encouragement of local protests, Saakashvili quickly won back control of the Black Sea region of Adzharia. But since he set his sights on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, their leaders -- backed by Russia -- have responded with defiance.

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Relations between Georgia and Russia worsened in September after Georgia arrested four alleged Russian spies, even though it released them a few days later in a bid to limit the diplomatic damage. Moscow responded with a cutoff of transportation links and bans on the importation of Georgian wine and mineral water.

Some analysts in Moscow have suggested over the last year that certain cliques within the Kremlin may stoke tensions with Georgia before the Russian presidential election in March. The constitution requires President Vladimir V. Putin to step down next year at the end of his second term, and some observers say that a military clash with Georgia might benefit a hard-line candidate or provide a pretext for Putin to change the constitution and remain in office.

Ghia Nodia, chairman of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, a Tbilisi think tank, said he was convinced that the missile incident was “a real firing” by Russia. He suggested that Moscow may have taken the action in response to Georgia’s recent attempts to promote a pro-Tbilisi “parallel government” for breakaway South Ossetia.

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david.holley@latimes.com


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