The New York Times reports:
The Republic of Georgia accused Russia on Monday of violating its airspace and using a MiG fighter jet to shoot down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance drone over the separatist territory of Abkhazia on Sunday. Russia denied the Georgian claim, saying that none of its military planes flew in or near southwestern Russia on Sunday and that its air force 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 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 an angry diplomatic and public relations offense. 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 “aggressive attacks.”
The footage shows the clear silhouette of a twin-tailed fighter aircraft, which the Georgians claimed was a MiG-29 fighter jet, bank into view beneath the drone and fire 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, was Russia’s.
The dispute marked the latest claim by Georgia that Russia has 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. Each incident, Georgia has said, was further evidence that Russia has sided militarily with separatists it already supports politically in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two enclaves that have had de facto independence since 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 so-called peacekeeper in the region. Russia has repeatedly denied the Georgian claims, even when confronted with the pieces of the broken rockets and missiles with Russian-language markings.
After the incident last August, Russia accused Georgia of staging a fake attack, or attacking itself. Georgia countered that it had digital radar evidence of a plane entering from Russia, flying to area of the attack and then returning to Russia.Georgia had initially denied Abkhaz reports on Sunday that it lost a drone. But on Monday it changed its story, 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.
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. 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 only did so 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 close enough for the plane to be filmed by the drone before the drone 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 force 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 on the region, he said. Georgian officials said the footage had been shared with foreign embassies in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital; the embassies made no public comment.
The incident occurred a week after Russia said it increasing its support and relations with the separatist territories inside Georgia, a step that several Western countries, including the United States, have criticized. “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, before the latest incident.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
The New York Times reports: