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Georgia denies Abkhaz, Russian claims over spy planes

Image from www.maria.trombly.com.
by Staff Writers
Sukhumi, Georgia (AFP) May 4, 2008
The war of nerves between Georgia, Russia and the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia stepped up a notch Sunday, as Abkhaz officials claimed to have downed two unmanned Georgian spy planes.

As Russia issued a statement accusing Georgia of escalating tension in the region, Tbilisi categorically denied it had lost any drones -- but vowed it would continue flying the unmanned aircraft over Abhkazia.

The latest war of words started when Georgia's rebel Abkhazia region said Sunday it had downed two Georgian drones two weeks after a similar incident stoked tensions in the region.

"Abkhaz anti-aircraft forces today destroyed two unmanned Georgian spy planes" over eastern Abkhazia, the de facto defence ministry of the self-declared Abkhaz republic said in a statement.

Authorities were searching for fragments of the planes, the statement added.

But Georgia's interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili immediately denied that any aircraft had been shot down.

"We categorically deny the loss of any Georgian planes," Utiashvili told AFP. "There were no Georgian planes flying in the region."

From Moscow meanwhile, a foreign ministry statement accused Tbilisi of stoking tensions in the region by illegally deploying spy drones.

"Resorting to adventures with unmanned reconnaissance planes... the authorities in Tbilisi have taken the road of deliberately stoking tension in the region," said the statement.

"Yet another provocative incident with two Georgian drones, which was played out on the scheme that had been worked out by Georgia's defense ministry in advance, is proof that Tbilisi no longer considers the possibility of a peaceful resolution," the Russian defense ministry echoed.

"Having boosted its military potential with foreign sponsorship, Georgian politicians, supported by some NATO member states, intend to discredit Russia's peacekeeping efforts and create conditions for use of force," the ministry added in a statement.

Georgia retorted that Moscow was trying to prevent it from controlling its own airspace and insisted the flights would continue.

"Unmanned drones of Georgia's interior ministry have flown, are flying and will fly in Georgia's sovereign airspace in order to obtain full information on Russia's intervention" in Abkhazia, said a foreign ministry statement.

Abkhazia has previously claimed to have downed two other Georgian spy planes. One of them was shot down on April 20 -- according to Tbilisi by a Russian MiG-29 in an incident it described as "an act of aggression."

Russia denied any involvement, but the incident provoked expressions of concern from the European Union, NATO and the United States.

Tensions between Russia and ex-Soviet Georgia have soared in recent weeks over Moscow's decision last month to strengthen ties with Abkhazia and another rebel region, South Ossetia.

And on Tuesday, Russia announced it was increasing peacekeeping contingents deployed in the regions under ceasefire agreements signed in the 1990s -- a move denounced by Georgia as illegal.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Vyacheslav Sedov told AFP Sunday that the contingent had reached 3,000 soldiers after the increase, up from about 2,000 before.

Russia's decision to increase its military presence in Abkhazia prompted expressions of concern earlier this week from the United Nations, the United States and the European Union.

Georgia's pro-Western government has repeatedly accused Moscow of attempting to annexe the two pro-Russian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a bid to weaken the country and foil its efforts to join NATO.

The two territories broke away from Georgian control during wars in the early 1990s that left thousands dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

The two regions survive thanks to support from Moscow, which has close links with separatist governments and has provided passports to most residents of the rebel regions.

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