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Russia accused of downing Georgian spy plane

A Russian fighter jet has shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane as it flew over the breakaway region of Abkhazia, Georgia's air force commander said Monday.
Image: Combination image of spy plane being shot down
Georgia's air force says these images were taken by an unmanned spy plane before it was shot down Sunday.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Russian fighter jet has shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane as it flew over the breakaway region of Abkhazia, Georgia's air force commander said Monday.

The two countries' presidents discussed the incident by telephone Monday in what Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili termed a "difficult conversation."

"I categorically demanded that the Russian leadership without delay rescind the illegal judicial actions it has taken ... and halt aggressive attacks on Georgia," Saakashvili said.

Col. David Nairashvili, Georgia's air force commander, told The Associated Press that video footage recorded by the plane before it was shot down Sunday shows the attacking jet was Russian. The footage, which was shown to AP, showed an aircraft firing a missile in the direction of a plane and a few seconds later the screen goes blank.

The incident occurred over Abkhazia, a region that has had de-facto independence since breaking away from the Georgian government in the 1990s. Russia has tacitly backed Abkhazia, granting its residents passports and other support, and Moscow recently announced that it was establishing stronger ties with the region.

MiG-29 to blame?
Nairashvili said the plane's distinctive twin-tail markings indicate it is a MiG-29 and radar shows it took off from the Abkhazian town of Gudauta, the former site of a Russian military base.

"It's a Russian aircraft. Georgia does not possess it, nor do Abkhaz separatists," he said. "It's absolutely illegal for a Russian MiG-29 to be there."

Georgia announced it had summoned Russia's ambassador to lodge a protest.

Russian Defense Ministry officials directed all comments to a spokesman for Russia's joint chiefs of staff, Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky, who could not be immediately located for comment.

However, the Interfax news agency quoted him as denying any involvement by Russian air force jets, saying Sunday was a day of rest for Russian pilots.

The Kremlin released a statement, saying President Vladimir Putin expressed his "bewilderment" at the fact Georgian unmanned spy plane was flying over Abkhazia.

"This violates the letter and spirit" of the 1994 cease-fire that ended open fighting between Georgian and Abkhazia forces, and "is a destabilizing factor and escalates the tensions in Abkhazia," the Kremlin said.

Saakashvili, the Georgian leader, has vowed to bring both Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, back under central government control. He also has cultivated strong economic and military ties with the United States and actively sought NATO membership _ much to Russia's consternation.

Tensions have grown between the Abkhazia and Georgian governments since Abkhazia in February formally appealed for the world community to recognize it as independent. The Abkhazian parliament cited Kosovo's declaration of independence as a precedent.

U.S. voices concern
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters that some of the "moves made by the Russian government to quote 'strengthen the relationship' with the regions of Georgia" have not been positive.

He said Washington was concerned about the reported shooting down of the Georgian spy plane but was seeking more information.

Abkhazian Deputy Defense Minister Garry Kupalba disputed Georgia's account, saying the spy plane was shot down by one of its L-39 jets.

The TV footage provided by Georgia shows a jet with twin-tail construction _ something that makes MiG jets distinctive from the single-tail construction of the L-39.

Kupalba said the unmanned plane was identical to a Georgian one that was shot down by Abkhazian forces on March 18. After that shoot-down, Abkhazia's president, Sergei Bagapsh, vowed that the region's military forces would shoot down any Georgian combat planes that fly over its territory.

Last summer, Georgia said a plane coming from Russia entered the country's airspace and dropped a missile on Aug. 6. The missile did not explode and no casualties were reported.