Georgia-Russia Tension Escalates Over Downed Drone

Georgia-Russia Tension Escalates Over Downed Drone
April 22nd, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Georgia-Russia Tension Escalates Over Downed Drone

Georgia-Russia Tension Escalates Over Downed Drone
New York Times
April 22, 2008
Pg. 14
By C. J. Chivers
MOSCOW — Georgia accused Russia on Monday of violating its airspace and using a MIG fighter jet to shoot down a Georgian reconnaissance drone over the separatist territory of Abkhazia on Sunday.
Russia’s Air Force denied the Georgian claim, saying that none of its military planes flew in or near southwestern Russia on Sunday and that its pilots were not working that day.
But Georgia released what is said was the video recording of the final live feed received from the unarmed reconnaissance aircraft before it was struck by an air-to-air missile and crashed at 9:55 a.m. Sunday.
Buoyed with what it called clear evidence, Georgia countered with a diplomatic and public relations offensive. President Mikheil Saakashvili appeared on national television and said he had spoken with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and demanded an end to what he called “unprovoked aggression against the sovereign territory of Georgia.”
In a telephone interview Monday night, Mr. Saakashvili said he had spoken with Mr. Putin for about 40 minutes. He said that Mr. Putin had neither confirmed nor denied the attack, and that the two presidents had disagreed sharply about the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist enclaves in Georgia that receive intensive political and diplomatic Russian support.
Last week, Mr. Putin issued a decree expanding relations between Russia and the enclaves, including direct contacts with Russia’s ministries and pledges of economic and agricultural aid. Georgia called the decree a formal step in “a creeping annexation.”
The video released Monday seemed certain to intensify the dispute. It shows the clear silhouette of a twin-tailed fighter aircraft, which the Georgians claimed was a MIG-29 fighter jet, as it banks into view beneath the remotely piloted drone and fires a missile toward the camera.
The missile streaks swiftly toward the lens, leaving a long smoke trail as it advances and grows in size. The footage stops. Black-and-white static fills the screen.
Neither the Georgian Air Force nor the tiny contingent of Abkhaz planes in the separatist territory have MIG-29s. The only air force with MIG-29s that could have been in the area, Georgian officials said, is Russia’s.
Mr. Saakashvili said the evidence was irrefutable. “It’s on the video,” he said. “It’s a Russian plane.”
The dispute marked the latest claim by Georgia that Russia had made illegal military incursions into Georgian airspace. Last year, Georgia accused Russia of two mysterious attacks — a coordinated helicopter and ground-to-ground rocket attack in the Kodori Gorge in March, and an attack from a Russian jet with an air-to-ground missile in August.
Mr. Saakashvili also said that Russia had secretly expanded military aid to Abkhazia, staging aircraft inside its borders and assigning trainers to Abkhaz ground units. He said that last year a special Georgian unit killed two Russian colonels who had accompanied an Abkhaz reconnaissance patrol deep into Georgian territory.
Each event, Georgia has said, is further evidence that Russia has sided militarily with separatists it already supports politically in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which achieved de facto independence after brief wars against Georgia in the 1990s.
The attacks, Georgia has said, show that Russia is not neutral and should be grounds to nullify Russia’s role as a peacekeeper in the region, which it has had since a cease-fire in 1993. Russia has repeatedly denied the Georgian claims, even when confronted with pieces of the broken rockets and missiles with Russian-language markings.
After the episode last August, Russia accused Georgia of staging a fake attack, or of attacking itself. Georgia countered that it had digital radar evidence of a plane entering from Russia, flying to the area of the attack and then returning to Russia.
Georgia initially denied Abkhaz reports on Sunday that it had lost a drone. But on Monday it changed its account, saying it had dispatched an unarmed drone to observe Abkhaz troop buildups in Gali, a district on the Black Sea near the internal administrative border between Georgian and Abkhaz forces.
Mr. Saakashvili said Georgia had about 40 reconnaissance drones, which it purchased from Israel and distributed among its police and military commands. “It is a very handy thing in a mountainous country,” he said. The lost drone, he said, belonged to the Interior Ministry.
The Russian Air Force command did not dispute that a Georgian drone had been downed by an air-to-air missile. But it said an Abkhaz L-39 training plane had flown the mission, not a Russian MIG-29.
The fighter plane seen in the Georgian video did not resemble an L-39, which has a distinctive silhouette, including a single tail. The video could not be immediately verified independently. No markings were visible on the attacking plane.
Georgian officials said they were fortunate to capture the fighter plane on camera, and had done so only because a first missile fired by the plane missed the drone, which has a small engine that they said made it a difficult target for a heat-seeking missile.
The pilot apparently decided to approach closer for a second shot, they said, and flew near enough for the plane to be filmed by the drone before it was destroyed.
Shota Utiashvili, a senior official in Georgia’s Interior Ministry, said radar data also showed that the Russian plane had flown from Gudauta, a former Soviet air base inside Abkhazia, which is within Georgia’s internationally recognized borders.
Basing Russian attack aircraft in Abkhazia would be illegal and a violation of the terms of peacekeeping in the region, he said.
Georgian officials said the video had been shared with foreign embassies in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital; the embassies made no public comment. Mr. Saakashvili said Georgia would bring the attack up with the United Nations.
The attack, he said, was hardly the first, “but this time we have video evidence.”
The episode occurred only days after several Western countries, including the United States, criticized Russia’s announcement that it would expand its support for the breakaway regions.
“We are very concerned at the steps that have been taken and we have made our views known to the Russian government,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week.

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